When I was a teenager, my Mom told me the story of her cousin, George Zorick III, who died while attempting to save his family in the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire of 1977. She didn’t go into detail, the pain was written on her face, but one thing stuck in my head and marinated: He picked up his wife and threw her to safety. She survived, but he did not. It stayed with me because it was tragic and heroic. It seemed like something out of a movie, not something that happened in real life. But it did.
It was Memorial Day weekend, May 28, 1977. The Beverly Hills Supper Club was actually in Southgate, Kentucky, but operated as if it was in Tinseltown, boasting its status as the “Showplace of the Nation.” It was packed to the gills that night, its 19 party rooms overflowing beyond capacity with 3000 or more guests, a third of them occupying the large Cabaret Room – a decadent 3 level room where singer John Davidson was set to headline. Waitresses had a hard time serving because of the cramped quarters. Later, they estimated that the room had been somewhere around 300-400 people over its capacity.
Around 6:30 p.m. guests started complaining about the heat and asked staff to turn up the air conditioning. The Zebra Room had hosted a wedding reception earlier in the evening, but the guests all left early, complaining not only of the heat but of explosions beneath the floor. It was empty by the time George Zorick Jr., his sister-in-law Agnes “Irene” Billinghurst Muddiman (the widowed sister of Dorothy Billinghurst, George II’s deceased wife), George’s son George Zorick III, and his wife J arrived around 8:55 p.m. They took a seat at a round, center table in the packed Cabaret room, in an area far from the stage and fire exits. Right around this time, an employee smelled smoke coming from the Zebra room and opened the door there, letting oxygen in which sped the progress of a fire that had already begun inside. Staff called the Fire Department and attempted to use fire extinguishers, but the flames were spreading rapidly and there was nothing they could do. A few minutes later, the fire and smoke reached the crowded Cabaret Room.
There were no fire alarms and the building itself was so large that it was impossible for staff to warn patrons until it was too late. The Zoricks and Irene had only been there about 10 minutes. Smoke had already started seeping in at 9:06 p.m. when the evacuation notice was given to the Cabaret Room by Walter Bailey, a young busboy who acted quickly when he saw the smoke coming from the Zebra Room. Some guests thought this was part of the act on stage and ignored Bailey. 33 year old George Zorick III did not. The younger George was a volunteer firefighter captain for the Mack Fire Department in Cincinnati and knew a fire when he smelled it. Soon after, the main door of the Cabaret Room was flooded with a freight train of black smoke, the aftermath of a fireball from the Zebra Room. The Cabaret Room was windowless with only 3 double doored exits, 2 of which were quickly rendered useless as the fire overtook them. Guests panicked when the power went out a few minutes after the evacuation notice and they pushed, shoved, and trampled each other in an effort to remove themselves from the black, sweltering heat. Guests fell on each other, and crushed together to make a wall, leaving few able to get out of what was now the only exit. Realizing the danger they were in more than most, George (III) got up and made his way from the center of the room, pulling his wife with him to the only usable exit, already packed with people. Gene Goltz’ news article about the fire describes their experience, “Screaming women wearing ‘frilly cotton dresses’ were on fire. Her [Janet’s] father-in-law, George Zorick Jr., 52, was standing by the table where Irene Muddiman, 48, was still sitting. The younger Zorick, strong and stocky from loading Kroger trucks daily, picked up his 115 pound wife and heaved her over the heads of crazed men and women toward the exit.”
Because of this act, J survived. Her husband’s fate was very different. Sturdy George could have tried to muscle his way out of the crush of people, he could have tried to climb over them, but he didn’t. After throwing his wife to safety, George ran back to save his father and aunt. The danger was apparent to anyone at that point, but as a firefighter, he knew firsthand what happened to people who did not make it. He may have been fiercely optimistic or fatalistically selfless…or both. The choice he made reflected bravery at its utmost. Overcome by smoke, all 3 would die in the inferno.
Despite George III’s training, the odds had been against them from the start. Aside from the overcrowding and the particular room that they were in being over max capacity, the tragedy was coaxed along by several other factors. The building was a fireman’s nightmare, consisting of not enough exits, faulty wiring, no firewalls, no fire alarm or sprinklers, and a host of flammable materials. The building was also strangely constructed. Corridors led to dead ends. Narrow hallways led to service rooms instead of exits. Trying to find your way out in the best of circumstances may have been tricky. Adding panic, crowds, and a dense screen of smoke, it was near impossible.
Ultimately around 165 people were killed and more than that number were injured, making the event the 3rd most deadly nightclub fire in US history.
Losing “the Georges” rocked my family. George Jr. was my mom’s first cousin, but she was actually closer in age to his son George III. Pictures of the two Georges show solidly built men, handsome with a steady, working class sheen. They looked capable and sturdy…and they were. George Jr. was a machinist for Ford motor company while his son, George III, worked as a truck driver for Kroger when he wasn’t volunteering as a firefighter.
George Jr. was remembered as a gem of a person. Family members remember him buying items for them and their kids, just because. Generous George. His nephew, Peter, remembers that the first time he met his uncle at age 5, “I got a huge splinter in my hand and was told only George could remove that lumber with no pain. They were right! It was an inch long and I carried around for a long time. He just had a way.”
“Uncle George was so much fun! He used to go through the store and buy whatever looked interesting- corn on the cob in January, a jar of peanut butter and jelly already swirled together, didn’t matter what it cost, he just wanted to have the novelty,” his niece recalled. George Jr. was a widower when he lost his life, his wife Dorothy having died about 13 years prior to the fire.
According to a niece, George III started the fire company he belonged to. Being too short for regulations, he started his own from the ground up. “The man had a giant heart!” she remembered. He was honored accordingly.
At George III’s funeral, his coffin was draped with a flag and driven through town in a fire truck, followed by 50 vehicles, and many devastated family and friends.
This post is in memory of:
Agnes Irene Billinghurst Muddiman (1/19/1929 – 5/28/1977)
My 1st cousin 1x removed, George Daniel Zorick II (7/1/1924 – 5/28/1977)
My 2nd cousin, George Daniel Zorick III (3/2/1944 – 5/28/1977)
George Zorick III remembered in 2017 by the Cincinnati Fire Museum
1). Goltz, Gene. “The Southgate Inferno” The Morning News. 28 May 1978.
3). “How it Happened: Tragedy Routed in Code Violations”. The Cincinnati Enquirer, May 25, 1997. Accessed December 6, 2009.
4). Halsey, Ashley. “A Fire’s Legacy.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. 31 May 1982.