Ceremony to honor victims of Rhythm Night Club fire

Published 12:02 am Wednesday, April 23, 2014

NATCHEZ — The stories of the 209 lives lost and those who survived one of the deadliest nightclub fires to date are continuing to be told 74 years later by a museum at the site of the fire and by a Florida filmmaker on big screens across the country.

On April 23, 1940, a fire broke out at the Rhythm Night Club at 5 St. Catherine St., during a performance by Chicago Walter Barnes and his Royal Creolians.

The fire, which was started by a carelessly discarded cigarette, claimed the lives of 209 of the nearly 700 people inside

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On the 70th anniversary of the event, Natchez residents Monroe and Betty Sago dedicated a museum on the site of the tragedy aimed to tell the story of those who died and those who survived.

Each year, the couple hosts a commemoration ceremony at the museum in hopes of telling the stories that some locals have yet to hear, Betty said.

This year’s event will be at noon Saturday at the museum site and will include refreshments and entertainment.

“We want the youth to be involved so they know about the tragedy that happened here 74 years ago,” Betty said. “We hope to continue telling this story, so eventually people all over the world will know what happened in this little town in Natchez that caused fire codes and safety measures to change and keep us safe today.”

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.

The codes changed from the fire include rules about the widths of exits, requiring that doors open to the outside and limiting the occupancy of buildings.

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

The significant changes that came from the fire coupled with a lack of connection to the Rhythm Night Club fire being a catalyst for those changes inspired a Florida filmmaker to create a documentary on the fire.

Bryan Burch made his first trip to Natchez in 2010 and filmed more than half the footage of what would eventually become his documentary.

Last year, Burch finished his documentary and began submitting the film to various film festivals across the country.

Since then, Burch’s documentary, titled “The Rhythm Club Fire,” won best documentary short film in the Orlando Film Festival, received honorable mention at the Los Angeles Movie Awards and was an official selection for Louisville’s International Festival of Film.

The outpouring of support from fans, critics and others has been more than Burch ever imagined possible.

“It’s kind of a validation that all this hard work we’ve been doing has been worth it,” Burch said. “For me, that’s basically the shining spot I can hang my hat on and say, ‘You know what? This makes it all worth it.’”

Burch recently submitted the documentary to a variety of film festivals in cities such as Las Vegas, Portland, Austin and New Orleans. He also submitted the film to the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, which is an Academy Award qualifier festival.

While Burch has been more than pleased with the response from the documentary by the film festivals, he said he’s not pleased the DVD of the film won’t be available for sale anytime soon.

“A lot of these film festivals we’re submitting for have criteria that say the film can not be for sale anywhere,” Burch said. “The goal of this film has always been about getting the story in front of as many people as possible, but it was a tough decision to say well which way will reach more people?

“I ultimately made the decision to submit the film and not sell it on DVD for now, anyway.”

Burch said the story of the Rhythm Night Club fire has become a major part of his life in the past few years and one that he says will be with him for the rest of his life.

“It’s just a part of me now because I’ve spent so much time talking to people about it and working on the project,” Burch said. “It wasn’t even on my radar a few years ago, but from now until I’m old and gray this story will be a part of me and a part of my life.”