Published on May 1, 2021.

Dinner Disaster

The Beverly Hills Supper Club fire – Southgate, Kentucky


It was a busy Saturday night at the sprawling Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, on May 28, 1977. The club was packed with an estimated 2,600 guests, including about 1,200 people attending a show in the Cabaret room. The night would end as one of the deadliest fire events in the nation’s history.

Around 8:45 p.m., employees noticed a fire in an unoccupied function room. Staffers tried but failed to extinguish the fire, and the fire department wasn't notified until about 10 to 15 minutes after the fire was discovered. Facility management ordered staff to evacuate all guests, and those in the Cabaret room were the last to be notified. As they made their way out, thick smoke and flames quickly filled the room, cutting off two of its three exits. Many patrons were trapped. Every fire department in the county responded to the fire, which was brought under control at around 2 a.m. Sunday morning. Complete extinguishment was not achieved until Monday, according to an NFPA case study. The building was destroyed, 164 people were dead, and 70 were injured.

NFPA sent five specialists to participate in a two-week on-site investigation; subsequent data collection and analysis spanned five months. The team produced a report titled “Reconstruction of a Tragedy: The Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire,” which concluded that the fire's cause was most likely electrical. The report listed several contributing factors, including overcrowding—the mostly one-story restaurant and nightclub was built in 1937 and, through a series of expansions, covered 1.5 acres and consisted of 18 function rooms designed to accommodate 1,000 guests—as well as delayed discovery of the fire, delayed notification of guests and the fire department, no evacuation plan or fire emergency procedures, inadequate exits, and no fire suppression and detection systems.

While many of the lessons learned from the fire echoed those of past fires, it did trigger code changes. The 1981 edition of NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, required new and existing assembly occupancies with occupant loads exceeding 300 to have a fire alarm system with voice messaging to notify occupants, and it required new assembly occupancies with occupant loads exceeding 300 to be sprinklered. In addition to code changes, the fire was featured in sessions at NFPA annual meetings and in NFPA publications. NFPA produced a case study and a human behavior analysis of the fire, as well as an award-winning film, The Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire: A Case for Code Enforcement. Explore those resources here.

CAITLIN WALKER is a digital asset librarian at NFPA. Top photograph: AP/WIDE WORLD