By Dan Murphy
On Tuesday, Nov. 28 – the eve of the 75th anniversary of the Cocoanut Grove fire – the most deadly tragedy in the city’s history was commemorated recently with a special program at the Copley Branch of the Boston Public Library.
Stephanie Schorow, a former Boston Herald reporter and author of six books, including “The Cocoanut Grove Fire,” “Boston: A History of the City and its Spirits” and the just-published “Inside the Combat Zone: The Stripped Down Story of Boston’s Most Notorious Neighborhood,” was on hand at the library for her third time discussing the blaze.
Schorow recalled how two local entertainers, Mickey Albert and Jacques Renard, opened Cocoanut Grove at 17 Piedmont St. in 1927, modeling it after a nightclub bearing the same name in Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel. Business was lean in its early years, she said, since the club opened at the height of Prohibition and consequently couldn’t serve alcohol.
Local gangster and one-time bootlegger Charles “King” Solomon owned the Cocoanut Club from 1931 until two years later, when he was gunned down in an after-hours Boston nightclub. During his tenure, Solomon began the habit of keeping the nightclub’s doors locked, due to both his fear of being gunned down by rival gangsters, and to deter patrons from skipping out on their tabs. Attorney Barney Welansky purchased and expanded the nightclub following Solomon’s unnatural demise while maintaining the closed-door policy.
On the evening of Nov. 28, 1942, Boston College’s football team was defeated by Holy Cross in a 55-12 upset at Fenway Park. The team had made reservations at the Cocoanut Club that night, but canceled them in light of the humiliating defeat.
One notable celebrity in attendance at the Cocoanut Grove that night was Buck Owens, a real–life cowboy turned Western movie star. Owens died of smoke inhalation, but contrary to popular belief, Schorow said not while trying to save his fellow patrons from the blaze.
The fire began in the Melody Lounge downstairs at 10:15 p.m., when 16-year-old busboy Stanley Tomaszewski lit a match in an effort to install a light bulb that a patron had removed earlier that evening. The blaze immediately engulfed the lounge area and reached up the staircase within three minutes, and by 10:20 p.m., it had spread throughout the whole complex.
Firefighters responded to the scene rapidly and were able to extinguish the blaze in short order, but six exit doors were locked, had been blocked or were otherwise not properly functioning.
In all, the fire claimed 492 lives of about 1,000 people on hand at the nightclub that night. (It was only licensed for 500.) Between 100 and 200 other patrons were also injured as a result of the blaze, many of them severely. One guilt-ridden survivor committed suicide, while many others suffered from post-traumatic stress in the aftermath.
Welansky was convicted of 19 counts of manslaughter the next year. He was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison and served nearly four years before being pardoned by then-Gov. Maurice J. Tobin.
As a result of the fire, Schorow said major advances were made in burn and lung treatments, legal precedents were set, and new safety rules were created and enforced.
Schorow also said the Cocoanut Grove story stills bears repeating to this day, citing three other recent fires that occurred under the same conditions – the 2003 Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., that resulted in 100 deaths; last year’s Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, Calif., which took 26 lives; and just this summer, the Grenfell Tower fire in London that claimed 79 casualties.
Following Schorow, Zachary Graves-Miller, a lifelong Bay Village resident who is producing and directing the first full-length documentary on the tragedy entitled “Six Locked Doors: The Legacy of Cocoanut Grove,” offered a sneak preview of the work in progress.
The film features interviews with several survivors of the tragedy, including patrons and a house tap-dancer, as well as a server.
“It was a great place,” erstwhile waiter John Rizzo said. “I loved the Cocoanut Grove.”
Graves-Miller said he is currently trying to raise funds to complete the project. Visit https://www.facebook.com/sixlockeddoorsfilm/ for more information.