The Beverly Hills Supper Club: The Untold Story Behind Kentucky’s Worst Tragedy

by Pat Moynahan on June 14, 2016

Robert Webster author

Robert Webster shares the story of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire that occurred on May 28, 1977 in Southgate, KY.

FLORENCE – Robert D. Webster says he did not set out to write a book on the 1977 Beverly Hills Supper Club fire when first approached, particularly a book that suggests the blaze was arson. He changed his mind after listening to stories from survivors.

“I kept hearing a different story (about possible causes) than I had ever heard before,” he told members of the Florence Rotary Club at a luncheon on Monday, June 6. “Nothing seemed to make sense with what I heard before.”

beverly-hills-club-2Webster, president of the Kenton County Historical Society, tries to make sense of it all in Beverly Hills Supper Club: The Untold Story of Kentucky’s Worst Tragedy. He says his examination of police reports, legal depositions, news articles, eyewitness accounts and personal interviews led him to believe the fire that killed 165 people and injured more than 200 was the work of local mafia operatives.

Webster’s book explores the alleged infiltration of the Cleveland and New York mafia into Northern Kentucky nightlife from the 1940s to the 1970s. It also traces the rise of illegal gambling and other illicit activities that gained Newport a “Sin City” reputation before reformers turned things around.

beverly-hills-club-1Webster contends mobsters set the Beverly Hills Supper Club on fire because the Richard Schilling family refused to sell the Southgate showplace to them. The Schillings had turned the supper club into a thriving, high-class entertainment and gourmet dining nightspot, and the mob wanted a piece of the action.

“The waiters and waitresses expected the place to be torched,” said Webster. “They just didn’t know when.”

Webster based much of his theory on personal interviews with employees of the club who survived the blaze. Dave Brock, an 18-year-old busboy at the time of the fire, told him employees saw people who claimed to be maintenance workers in the Zebra Room the afternoon of the fire. They also saw unknown workers supposedly cleaning walls.

The strangers claimed to be working on the air conditioning, Webster said, but his investigation did not find any evidence anyone was hired to make repairs.

“Dozens of employees told them (investigators) about the suspicious workers, but that didn’t make the police report,” Webster said.

“There was evidence of tampering. There were timers in the rubble. There was clear evidence the fire started in an air-conditioner, spread up through the walls of the Zebra Room and burned down into the basement.”

Webster believes the investigation was stymied somewhat because the remains of the Beverly Hills Supper Club were demolished two days after the fire.

He wonders why.