Day in Kentucky history: Remembering the tragic Beverly Hills Supper Club fire 44 years later

Posted at 4:14 PM, May 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-28 21:38:57-04

SOUTHGATE, Ky. (LEX 18) — On this day in 1977, hundreds of people from around the region flocked to Southgate, Kentucky to the Beverly Hills Supper Club for what promised to be the perfect kick-off to the Memorial Day holiday.

That night ended in unbelievable tragedy. 165 people died in a fire there. Now, 44 years later, a new development is just about ready to break ground where so much sadness unfolded.

Jeff Ruby has become a big personality in Lexington after opening one of his famous steakhouses here. But he also has quite a story to tell about that tragic night.

Walking through these woods in Southgate, Kentucky, signs of the exclusive, chic nightclub with star-studded events and the crushing loss that struck here, are all but gone.

But for Jeff Ruby, the heavy atmosphere revives scintillating and graphic memories.

"There was no place like it where you could see Vegas acts in such glamour and glitz... private parties, weddings, I remember seeing Redd Foxx in the lounge," said Ruby.

Any good memories are now shrouded in what happened here. Re-living Memorial Day weekend 1977 brings back nightmares.

"Bodies just trampled in front of that door that swung in. And those people just died there. Only a few people got out after we did."

Jeff Ruby and his friends escaped death that night. So many others did not avoid tragedy. Families were ripped apart, children became orphans, people changed forever.

Ruby turned that night into a positive force in life. Every restaurant he opens now is somewhat a tribute to the fame and fascination that was once the Beverly Hills Supper Club.

"It kind of inspired me in the kind of spectacular ambiance I wanted in my restaurants and clubs," said Ruby. "That's why I try to give back to give to the community who gave me so much."

Not everyone finds it so easy to talk about that night when 165 people lost their lives in what is still one of the worst nightclub fires in the U.S. 44 years later. Now that development of these 80 acres appears imminent, many survivors and families have come to terms with what will become of this hallowed ground.

David Brock, a busboy then who also escaped the fire, has worked with survivors and families, pressing developers to honor their wishes.

"It's been 44 years; it's time for something to be done," said Brock. "What's nice about Ashley Homes... they are a class organization. And they've agreed not to build where people have perished."

Ashley Homes is the developer of the land. They plan to build an assisted living facility and single-family homes.

In the wake of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, it was determined the owners built additions to the building, disregarding fire codes in place at the time. Also, the carpets and seat cushions were highly flammable and emitted toxic fumes. Exits were scarce and not properly lit.

"Because of overcapacity at the venue, because of blocked exits, because of no smoke alarms, no sprinkler system, and no audible alarm at all... it made it very difficult for people to get out of the fire," said Battalion Chief Jeff Johnson with the Lexington Fire Department.

Chief Johnson says the biggest lesson out of this tragedy is enforcing fire codes such as limiting occupancy, requiring fire sprinklers and smoke alarms, and enough exits throughout facilities to prevent history from repeating.