Boston's Cocoanut Grove Fire
November 28, 2012 6:55 PM   Subscribe

70 years ago today, 492 people perished in a fire at Boston's popular Cocoanut Grove nightclub. The Cocoanut Grove Coalition offers documents, images, videos, and artifacts of the fire and its aftermath. This fascinating 1995 WGBH clip interviews a variety of survivors, offering a window on the era as well as the fire. Other documents of note: The Boston Library's Flickr photo set and the Library's recently released witness statements and final report. Also noteworthy: Buck Jones and the Cocoanut Grove controversy.

If you enjoyed the WGBH interview, it was part of an enjoyable historic series called Boston the Way It Was, a 2-volume series of Boston in the 30s and 40s.
posted by madamjujujive (25 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
One of the weird things about walking around Boston is that there are these places where momentous things happened, and you can pass by them and not even realize. For the Cocoanut Grove there's just a small emblem in the sidewalk — you might have walked over it if you've ever walked through Bay Village.

It's a similar story for the 1919 Molasses Flood. I've found the spot and walked by there. Supposedly there's a marker for it too, but I haven't found it yet.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:02 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

November's a bad month for fires in Boston. In addition to Cocoanut Grove, there was the Great Fire of 1872, which destroyed much of downtown Boston, the Thanksgiving Day Fire of 1889, which killed five firefighters, and the Luongo Fire of 1942, which killed six firefighters but which is little known outside East Boston due to the Cocoanut Grove fire two weeks later.
posted by adamg at 7:06 PM on November 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thanks for this. I considered posting the archived witness statements a few weeks ago when they came out, but I lacked enough context for a good post, I thought.

For some reason, this event has always haunted me particularly. (So has the Hartford Circus Fire, a similarly momentous tragedy.) When I was walking through the Back Bay some time ago, I was stunned to notice the plaque telling me that I was standing on just that spot. It seemed so small -- it hardly seemed possible that so much humanity could have been packed into that spot.

Like benito says, that's one amazing thing about Boston. The cityscape has changed so much, even from when I first knew it in the '90s.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:07 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

The scary thing is that just in 2003 New England had The Station nightclub fire, with 100 dead.

One of my first friends in Boston had a compulsion about locating the fire exits in any public room we spent more than 15 minutes in. She wasn't a local, but she may have been on to something there.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:18 PM on November 28, 2012

Fire exits. Love them, use them. It's a shame it took such a catastrophe to cause a seemingly obvious requirement. (A few years ago, my company moved into an office that had a 'fire exit' down a narrow hall with a door that swung inward. I was one of the people who complained somewhat vociferously.)

I can't imagine being in such a small, crowded space with a fire flashing over. Gah.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:19 PM on November 28, 2012

For some very very strange reason, my fifth grade teacher showed us a movie which was dramatic re-enactment of the Cocoanut Grove, complete with singers dying of smoke inhallation and panicked customers fighting futilely to get out of locked doors. It was terrifying. Though it was moderately scarring, it did make me hyper-aware of emergency exits.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:27 PM on November 28, 2012

I grew up in Worcester - my parents talked about this fire all the time - my Mom was in her early 20s when this happened. Everyone knew somebody that had been killed because there were a lot or people from Worcester that night who had attended the Holy Cross-BC football game, and then stayed on to celebrate the surprise HC victory. Prior to that, there were no building codes about doors opening out, which she said trapped a lot of people. We heard about this fire and the Worcester tornado all the time when we were kids.

benito.strauss, ever since the Station nightclub stories, I usually look for exits first thing too. And my Mom always drilled in me to run if I felt in danger. So many perished in both fires because they didn't react right away. She would always say it would be better to be wrong and slightly embarrassed than dead.
posted by madamjujujive at 7:28 PM on November 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

What was the band playing in the Cocoanut Grove?

Boston Public Library Flickr: Debris on sidewalk outside the Cocoanut Grove

Lets Sing a Gay Little Spring Song, from Bambi.
Massachussets. The sheet music is for the Luckey Roberts original.
Just as though you were here, Frank Sinatra.
posted by zamboni at 7:46 PM on November 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

The Station Nightclub fire thread was not what I would call Mefi's finest hour, btw.
posted by madamjujujive at 7:48 PM on November 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ridiculous is the fact that exits at the Cocoanut Grove were locked or unavailable. The history from the Iroquois Theatre fire, through the Triangle Shirtwaist disaster, through the Cocoanut Grove disaster, and many more, right up to the very recent disaster at the clothing factory in Pakistan shows that people will never learn. All of these motherfuckers killed people out of greed. That's shameful. The result of the Iroquois disaster was a sincere effort to create systems such as crash-bar doors with no exterior handles but which cannot be locked from the inside; why weren't those measures in place in 1942, almost 40 years later, at the Cocoanut Grove? It boggles the mind. And the E2 Nightclub disaster in Chicago was another example of buildings with no business holding large crowds, with choke points at the exits that more or less guarantee crowds of panicked people being crushed to death climbing over each other to escape when - God forbid! - something doesn't go as planned. These things severely test my faith in human beings and their institutions.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 7:48 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the links--very informative. I had no idea, for instance, that the witness statements were available on!

I read John Esposito's book Fire in the Grove not long ago, and I recommend it to anyone else interested in the fire. I found it clear and detailed (and horrifying, of course, but that goes without saying).

The Cocoanut Grove fire is also one of the case studies in a fascinating book I recently read (from the library; it's not what you might call a consumer-price-point book): Don't Panic: The Psychology of Emergency Egress and Ingress, by Chertkoff & Kushigian. I know, it sounds like a barrel of fun, but really, I was riveted.

You can see the table of contents on the right side of this page, showing the case studies it includes: the Iroquois Theatre Fire, Cocoanut Grove fire, Hartford Circus Fire, Beverly Hills Supper Club fire (all egress failures), the Who concert stampede (ingress failure), TWA jet crash 7/30/92 and the World Trade Center bombing 2/26/93 (both egress successes). Extremely interesting book.

(...sometimes I have to be careful which of my current reading material I take on plane trips. Is all I am saying.)
posted by theatro at 7:49 PM on November 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

What happened to the kid who lit the match to replace the light bulb? Who did he grow up to be? I can' t seem to find the answer, and I'm about to go to sleep and I know I'll forget about this tomorrow. Can anyone help me out?
posted by shushufindi at 7:53 PM on November 28, 2012

70 years ago today, my unborn uncle saved my life.

My grandparents planned to go to the Cocoanut Grove that night, and at the time my grandmother was quite pregnant with my uncle, the older brother of my mother. While they were standing in line waiting to go in, my unborn uncle started moving around inside my grandmother's uterus. My grandmother (who was probably on the fence about the whole outing to begin with) then decided that she wasn't up for the club that night and convinced my grandfather that they should just go have a nice dinner instead.

My uncle tells this story every Thanksgiving.
posted by Scientist at 7:55 PM on November 28, 2012 [19 favorites]

shushufindi, from Wikipedia:
Busboy Stanley Tomaszewski, who survived the fire and later testified at the inquiry, was exonerated, as he was not responsible for the flammable decorations or the life safety code violations. He was still ostracized for much of his life because of the fire. He died in 1994.
posted by madamjujujive at 8:00 PM on November 28, 2012

...and this is a fairly short account of the fire and how it started... the busboy was just 16 years old. Apparently, some of the football revelers were getting a little wild and unscrewed a lightbulb ... the owner ordered the boy to climb up and replace it but it was very dark and he struck a match to see what he was doing.

The frightening thing about fire is how fast it is. This all occurred in 10-15 minutes.
posted by madamjujujive at 8:18 PM on November 28, 2012

Thanks, madamjujujive, but I was thinking more about what the kid wound up doing with his life. What did he do for a living? Was he ever contacted years later?
posted by shushufindi at 8:29 PM on November 28, 2012

some of the football revelers were getting a little wild and unscrewed a lightbulb., how times have changed. This lead to the lampshade on the head, and eventually bath salts.
posted by shushufindi at 8:30 PM on November 28, 2012

A young couple, wanting privacy, reached to a palm frond to unscrew a 7.5- watt bulb. Told by a bartender to restore the light, a 16-year-old busboy climbed upon a seat, and then struck a match to locate the socket. A moment later, someone noticed flame along the satin ceiling.
That's the version of the story Wikipedia uses, which links to this Boston Globe story.
posted by laconic skeuomorph at 8:58 PM on November 28, 2012

Thanks, madamjujujive, but I was thinking more about what the kid wound up doing with his life. What did he do for a living? Was he ever contacted years later?

He graduated from Boston College and worked as a federal auditor.
posted by Dojie at 8:59 PM on November 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

I knew one of the survivors from Cocoanut Grove, Ercolino Ferretti. He was a computer music pioneer (doing some of the first digital synthesis of music at MIT in the early 50s, he sadly gets relegated to the footnotes in most computer music history books, mostly the piece "pipe and drum" gets mentioned as early physical modelling synthesis) and I had somehow gotten hired by his wife to help with some linux system administration chores for him towards the end of his life. Before all that though he had been a struggling young musician and had gotten a gig playing in the orchestra at Cocoanut Grove. His memory wasn't what it used to be at the point I knew him but he clearly remembered the whole thing vividly.

Weirdly I ended up having the job of being in charge of safety for performances by the music department when I went back to grad school. Remembering Lino describing that night meant that no matter how many turgid concerts of student chamber ensembles I had to sit through I felt like I was doing an important job every time I gave my airline stewardess speech of "exits are located here and over there in the event of an emergency".
posted by Perfectibilist at 9:37 PM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

I read through some of the first archived reports. They're riveting. Then I just clicked ahead randomly, opening at the start of some kid busboy named Stanley Tomaszewski.... Geez, poor kid.

I noticed, at the start, that the cop was asking (at least some) people if they had lit a match. But he asked Stanley something like four times. By the third time, I couldn't get why he kept pressing it. Now I'm guessing Stanley was just shaken and lying badly the first several times, when he said "no."
posted by meese at 10:03 PM on November 28, 2012

There was a show on HBO about it maybe 30 years ago. I could find only a promo for it.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 12:07 AM on November 29, 2012

My heart breaks for busboy Stanley. Why a terrible burden to bear.
posted by murfed13 at 12:35 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Charles Mingus was there; he talks about it in his biography, which is then given a dramatic reading by Chuck D on the Hal Willner tribute album "Weird Nightmare: Mediations on Mingus".

They seem to have it on Rhapsody (registration required) and It's a great story, but knowing Mingus, highly apocryphal, especially the part where he uses his bass to smash through the wall.
posted by Shepherd at 3:54 AM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Public radio's The Story had a good interview this week with a man who was a 16-year-old dancer at the club and who survived the fire.
posted by Rangeboy at 8:40 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

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