Seventy-two years ago tonight, on November 28, 1942, one of the most infamous tragedies of the 20th century struck the city of Boston. That Saturday night–as today, part of Thanksgiving weekend–a fire began at the swank Piedmont Street nightclub called the Cocoanut Grove. The fire quickly rushed through the overcrowded club and panicked patrons ran for the exits. The death toll that night was a horrifying 492 people, making the Cocoanut Grove disaster the worst fire of its kind in history.
The story of the Cocoanut Grove begins during Prohibition. It originally opened in 1927 as The Club, a speakeasy that was a partnership between two band leaders, Mickey Alpert and Jacques Renaud. The building was originally a garage but was soon converted into a complex of nightclubs and bars, of which the Cocoanut Grove (its eventual name) was only one. It shared a space with the Melody Lounge next door. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933 the businesses became legitimate, and by the outbreak of World War II in 1941 the nightclub was a favorite haunt of hipster Bostonians. The place was packed every weekend night and if you were in town to have some fun, the Cocoanut Grove was definitely the place to be.
The stories of many survivors of the fire are compiled into this video, produced by the National Fire Protection Association.
November 28, 1942, in addition to being two days after Thanksgiving, was the day of a big football game between Boston College and Holy Cross. BC unexpectedly lost, and when the game was over hundreds of people crammed the Cocoanut Grove for a few drinks and to hear some dance numbers. Because of the wartime blackout Christmas lights were banned on exterior structures, so the club had gone to great lengths to decorate the interior with numerous lights, as well as accouterments that suggested a “South Seas” atmosphere (very popular in the WWII era). But club owner Barney Welansky was a savvy businessman. Wary of patrons sneaking out without paying the cover charge, he boarded up the building’s side exits and forced all ingress and egress to the club through the revolving door at the front. This proved to be a tragic mistake.
At about 10:15 PM, something happened in the Melody Lounge next door. Exactly what is not clear. Stanley Tomaszewski, a 16-year-old busboy, was asked to replace a light bulb that had evidently been removed by a serviceman a few minutes before so he could kiss his date in privacy. Tomaszewski lit a match to be able to see the light bulb socket in the darkened club and managed to replace the bulb. Though he was later cleared of starting the fire, palm fronds that were part of the lounge’s decoration started burning in that area almost immediately. With palms and draperies going up in flames, the fire tore rapidly through the Melody Lounge, the next-door Caricature Bar and eventually encroached on the main Cocoanut Grove space, which by some accounts was crammed with nearly 1000 patrons. The building was rated for a maximum of 460.
The situation with the revolving doors should make it grimly obvious what happened next. As an emergency escape a revolving door is pretty much useless; panicked patrons rushed it in both directions, immobilizing the door. Bodies piled up against it as the fire continued. The flammable nature of the club’s decorations gave the fire plenty of fuel. After the disaster photos of the interior showed the fire had burned all the way to the ceiling. The bodies of some victims were found still sitting at their tables, drinks in hand. They were incinerated almost instantly. Many more died of trampling and smoke inhalation. Still, many hundreds managed to make it out, but nearly 500 were dead. Among them were cowboy movie star Buck Jones and numerous servicemen bound for the war fronts, including a man who had just been married that day.
Today, this vacant lot is all that remains of the site of the Cocoanut Grove. The ruined club was torn down shortly after the 1942 fire.
The investigation following the fire showed gross defiance of what few fire codes were applicable in that day, especially the locking of the side doors. New fire safety measures were introduced, such as the banning of revolving doors (at least without “normal” doors nearby), flammable decor and the institution of independently-lit exit signs. The scorched remnants of the club were torn down and eventually turned into a parking lot. The city of Boston also banned the use of “Cocoanut Grove” as the name of any licensed establishment within the city limits.
In late 1942, as the Battle of Stalingrad and the U.S./British invasion of North Africa were raging, it took a lot to bump the war news off the front pages, but the horror at the Cocoanut Grove commanded headlines all over the U.S. for a week. The fire is still etched indelibly into the historical memory of Boston and of the country at large. Every time you see a brightly-lit Exit sign, especially in a restaurant or club, you’re looking at part of the legacy of this unspeakable tragedy, which was the sad fate of so many war-weary Bostonians who went out that night just looking for a good time.