Rhythm Night Club fire museum dedicated

Published 12:07 am Sunday, April 25, 2010

NATCHEZ — Some things just need to be remembered.

And that’s why, 70 years to the day after what became known as the Rhythm Nightclub Fire claimed 209 lives, Monroe and Betty Sago dedicated a small museum on the site of the tragedy.

The couple started commemorating the event with a memorial service in 2008, but the vision that led to the museum’s creation began many years before then, Betty Sago said.

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“I have eaten with it, I have slept it with Monroe,” she said. “He has talked about it for a long time.”

One of the reasons the couple worked to build the museum was just to make sure the facts didn’t get scrambled, Betty Sago said.

“We have heard so many stories through the years about what happened and what didn’t happen,” she said.

“I had one lady tell me that, she saw the (memorial) marker about the fire on the bluff, and she thought that the people caught on fire on the bluff and fell into the river.”

While a marker commemorating the fire was placed on the Natchez bluffs, the fire actually happened at 5 St. Catherine Street.

On April 23, 1940, Chicago bandleader Walter Barnes and his Royal Creolians were set to perform at the club, which had been in operation for approximately three years.

“This was not a pick up your pieces and play band,” Natchez Fire Lt. Jamal McCullen said. “They had played premier venues in New York, Chicago and occasionally toured the south. Natchez was hosting premier talent.”

Because the premier talent was in town, almost as many as 700 people may have been in attendance that night, McCullen said.

But when a carelessly discarded cigarette lit the decorative Spanish moss hanging from the ceiling on fire, tragedy followed when there were too few exits and people weren’t able to open windows.

The fire was one of a string of deadly blazes nationwide that eventually led to new fire safety standards, including fire code adoptions, inspections and enforcement, McCullen said.

Those codes included rules about the widths of exits, requiring that doors open to the outside and limiting the occupancy of buildings, codes that would have saved many lives that night, he said.

“What happened was preventable,” McCullen said.

The establishment of a paid, full-time Natchez Fire Department in 1948 was also one of the legacies of the fire, he said.

During the museum dedication ceremony, a recording of Walter Barnes and the band was played. All but three members of the band died that night.

Monroe Sago said that he wants to see the museum grow in the future. Currently, it is mostly a collection of newspaper articles and photographs related to the fire, though Sago said he has other items not yet on display.

“We have got it small now, but we are going to get it done,” he said.

Sago has interviewed survivors of the fire, and he said they were the inspiration for the museum project.

“What we are doing, we are doing from our hearts,” he said.

Addie Robinson of Natchez said she appreciated that the museum and the accompanying dedication ceremony had been put together, and said she would join in future efforts.

“In the last hour-and-a-half I have learned more about the Rhythm Night Club fire than I have in all my life,” she said.