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Friday, March 28, 2014

Question the Queen City: Who set fire to the nightlife?

Posted By on Fri, Mar 28, 2014 at 4:06 PM

Editor's note: We recognize how quickly Charlotte has changed over the years, so here's us trying to preserve its story. In this series, native author David Aaron Moore answers reader-submitted questions about historic places in Charlotte. Submit inquires about unusual, noteworthy or historic people, places and things to davidaaronmoore@post.com.

My father used to be a bouncer at a nightclub in Charlotte back in the 1970s. He's mentioned to me more than a few times stories about several clubs being torched all around the same time. He's even hinted at some kind of mafia involvement. Do you recall the period or events he's referring to? - Robert Miller, Charlotte

An ad for the Cest Bon Club, one of 17 to burn in a five-year period, between 1971 and 1976. The owners of the Cest Bon also operated two other clubs that burned.
  • An ad for the C'est Bon Club, one of 17 to burn in a five-year period, between 1971 and 1976. The owners of the C'est Bon also operated two other clubs that burned.

It was a time that began with bell bottoms, toe socks and platform shoes and ended with feathered hair, disco and the nation's bicentennial celebration. Charlotte was struggling with school desegregation, and the country was growing weary of the Vietnam War as Republican Richard Nixon finished up a first term as president and began an ill-fated second.

Patrons of the city's local nightclub scene were watching their entertainment opportunities shrink by the month.

From 1971 to 1976, numerous nightclubs throughout the city were torched systematically, all by a similar method of soaking the club interiors with kerosene or gasoline. Among the 17 businesses that burned were the Purple Penguin, the Scorpio Lounge, the C'est Bon, the Carrousel Lounge and the Soul Train. Investigators determined that all but one were set intentionally.

Local nightclub owners were fearful of a so-called "protection racket" that was extorting business owners for money so they wouldn't be burned out. Others suggested that rival bar owners were simply trying to squash competition and that it got out of control.

"OK... here it is. It is an absolute fact," says a bar owner who spoke with the Charlotte Observer all those years ago on condition of anonymity. "[I know who] burned down my lounge. I can't prove it because I wasn't there when he did it, but believe me, I know he did. And it is an absolute fact that he burned down his own lounge. He joked with me after he did it. He said, 'There's no way they'll catch me unless you tell them, and if you do, you're next.' But if [I told] you those names they'd come burn down my house. And if I'm in it they'll burn me, too."

Officials in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Fire Department and the police department were confident about possible suspects, though evidence to prove their theories was sorely lacking.

"We can be almost certain who set some of these fires," said then-captain J.C. Davis. "But getting the kind of evidence we need for a conviction has been tough."

"These people in the lounge business are scared," said John Knowles, a then-fire inspector for Mecklenburg County. "They say if they talk to us somebody is going to burn their homes or hurt their families."

Perhaps it's only a coincidence, but it should be noted here that brothers John and Micheal Plumides were connected in some form or fashion to at least four of the fires.

The Plumides brothers were owners of the C'est Bon Club on Central Avenue, owners of the building that housed Flashes Lounge on Orr Road, which was the scene of two fires - one on July 15, 1974, and another on Nov. 4, 1974 - and owners of the building that housed the Stallion Lounge on Tryon Street.

Until Aug. 21, 1975, no individuals had been hurt during any of the fires that occurred. The Stallion Lounge was the scene of two deaths. The building was soaked in gasoline and then consumed by fire within minutes.

The charred remains of two teenage boys were discovered just inside the rear door. One of them, 16-year-old Tony McKee, was the son of the lounge's owner, Joyce McKee, and the manager, David McKee.

Police were uncertain as to whether or not the youths set the fire or were caught at the scene at an inopportune moment.

To date, almost all of the fires remain unsolved.

Moore is the author of Charlotte: Murder, Mystery and Mayhem. His writings have appeared in numerous publications throughout the U.S. and Canada.

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