Collection Preserves Beverly Hills Supper Club’s Story
As a Kentucky Historical Society’s registrar, my job involves a lot of record keeping and documentation. While this can be extremely detail-oriented and seems repetitive at times, there are moments that are completely unpredictable and exciting. One of those happened on April 9 when I received an email that read:
I don’t know if it would interest anyone, but I have a large collection of dishes, flatware and miscellaneous other items from the Beverly Hills Supper Club. If you think you may be interested in the collection I have, let me know as I feel they could benefit from having a new protected home.
My jaw dropped. Despite the club’s historical significance, the Kentucky Historical Society did not have a single artifact from there.
So, what was the Beverly Hills Supper Club?
The Beverly Hills Supper Club was a popular gambling and entertainment venue in Southgate, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Opening in the 1930s, it soon became the place to see performers such as Liberace, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. The late 1950s and early 1960s brought hardship to the Northern Kentucky nightclub scene when Sheriff George W. Ratterman set out to clean up the area. Kentucky nightclubs and casinos lost the mob protection that their gambling operations had once enjoyed. Without the casino revenue, the Beverly Hills Supper Club could not sustain itself. The original club closed in 1961.
The club was reopened in 1969 by a new owner, but this venture lasted only two months. However, entrepreneur Richard Shilling soon purchased the Beverly Hills Supper Club and spent over $3 million on renovations. The club featured multiple banquet, dining and show rooms. It contained a hall of mirrors, walls lined with oil paintings, ceilings with crystal chandeliers, red carpeted floors and a grand staircase. A fire ruined many of these renovations in 1970, but Shilling lavishly refurbished it. The Beverly Hills Supper Club again became the most popular club in town, hosting everything from banquets and receptions to proms and class reunions.
On Saturday, May 28, 1977, the club’s design and its extreme popularity proved fatal. Between 2,000 and 2,800 people were crammed into the building that night for a variety of events. Around 9 p.m., a server informed an 18-year-old busboy named Walter Bailey that there was a fire in the Zebra Room. Bailey, who was working in the Cabaret Room that evening, got on stage and told the audience there was a fire and everyone needed to exit the building.
The room began to fill with smoke and the electricity went out. The doorways became congested and impassable. Despite the heroic efforts of 500 emergency personnel from the Greater Cincinnati region, club staff and volunteers, the fire and fumes claimed the lives of at least 165 patrons―making it the third worst nightclub fire in U.S. history.
Several investigations were conducted into the fire’s cause. The Cincinnati Enquirer’s probe revealed a number of issues that contributed to the tragedy. Some of them were a lack of firewalls, overcrowding, inadequate emergency exits and extreme safety code violations.
Today, the site of the Beverly Hills Supper Club remains vacant.
The Beverly Hills Supper Club Collection
After receiving the email, I immediately contacted the potential donors, Charles and Jeffery Jones-Ritzler. Charles and Jeff collected items from auctions, antique markets and personal collectors. I visited their home to see the collection. I knew this was something that belonged at the Kentucky Historical Society.
I presented the donation offer to the Kentucky Historical Society’s collections acquisition committee, which unanimously voted to accept it. When KHS exhibits manager Jake Turner and I went to pick up the collection, Charles commented that it was a bittersweet moment to see his collection off to its new home, but that it was “fulfilling to know that our years-long collection will be appreciated by generations of visitors.”
My favorite items from the collection are a concrete statue, which once stood outside the club’s wedding chapel, and a banquet chair from the club’s Cabaret Room. Both are among the images shown on this page.
All total, the collection consists of 218 artifacts, seven books and an archival assortment of business cards, photos, menus, a canceled check and a postcard. Four staff members, three volunteers and one intern processed the Beverly Hills Supper Club Collection. You can view the entire artifact collection online.