Unaware of the size or location of the quickly spreading blaze ("I didn't know we'd even see the fire," recollects Teter), the comedians broke off their routine and calmly began directing the customers to the doors. "I heard no screaming or even loud talking," says McDonald. "It was kind of a murmuring crowd as they left." (Later McDonald remembered thinking, "Oh, God, don't let me panic and cause a stampede.") Keeping up a soothing stream of patter from the stage ("We've had a lot of people walk out on us, but this is ridiculous"), Teter and McDonald at one point found themselves indulging a departing fan's sense of gallows humor. "Will the show go on after this is over?" yelled the man over his shoulder. Assured that it would, the man asked plaintively, "But do I have to listen to the same jokes again?"
Moments later the seriousness of the situation became frighteningly clear. "I looked up and saw smoke rolling through the entrance doors directly in front of me," says Teter. By then, he estimates, about three-quarters of the thousand people in the audience had fled the room, so the comedians decided to make a quick escape of their own. Rushing to their dressing room, they grabbed four of ventriloquist Teter's dummies, but left behind his $4,000 videotape machine and their clothes. As they reached the exit, flames and panic began licking at the crowd. "The only way we got out," says McDonald, "is that people pushed us up the ramp and through the door. The people behind us didn't get out."
In all, the blaze claimed 158 victims, a death toll that made the Beverly Hills the worst U.S. nightclub fire since Boston's Cocoanut Grove catastrophe in 1942, in which 491 people were killed. After making their own escape, Teter and McDonald searched frantically for a friend (he survived), but soon found themselves consoling Davidson, whose music director, Douglas Herro, perished in the fire. Preferring not to dwell on the tragedy, the comedians, who met while students at Oklahoma State University in the 1960s, decided to drive on to Tulsa for their next engagement. (Both live in Oklahoma City, where McDonald has a wife and two children.) Before they left, a man who had been sitting just 15 feet from the stage walked up to thank Teter for "keeping us calm." "I consider those comedians real heroes," said another survivor, but Teter is reluctant to take any credit. "Don't make any mistake," he says. "I'm not a brave person. If I had known the size and the speed of that fire, I would have been out of there as quickly as I could."
It was Saturday night, and the musical comedy team of Teter and McDonald was warming up the huge holiday crowd at the plush Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky. The two had worked the Cabaret Room before and were about to cap their act with a familiar bit of political satire before the appearance of headline performer John Davidson. Suddenly, recalls Jim Teter, an ashen-faced bus-boy burst onto the stage, grabbed Jim McDonald's microphone and, motioning toward the exits, announced there was a fire. "He was scared and shaking," says Teter. "There was obviously nothing funny about it."