November 24th, 2009

Remembering Cocoanut Grove

Cocoanut Grove after the fire.

Not to dampen your holiday spirit, but if you’re out on the town this Saturday, November 28, you might take a moment to drink to the memory of Boston’s infamous Cocoanut Grove fire — the worst nightclub fire in history — which claimed almost 500 lives that night back in 1942.

Formerly a speakeasy, the swanky South End club had three bars and a ballroom that was decorated with highly flammable paper palm trees and cloth covering the ceiling and walls. The fire started when a busboy lit a match near one of the palm trees where he was replacing a lightbulb. As flames rapidly engulfed the club, many in the over-capacity crowd were trapped; the revolving-door main entrance jammed, and the other exits were locked or blocked. Within 15 minutes, 492 people were dead or dying. In the aftermath of the tragedy, fire safety codes, manslaughter law and medical treatment for burns and lung injuries were transformed.

If you’re a student of Boston and bar history as I am, you might want to check out “The Haunting Legacy of the Cocoanut Grove Fire” on the anniversary of the tragedy. It’s a free, illustrated lecture by former Boston Herald reporter Stephanie Schorow, who authored The Cocoanut Grove Fire. I befriended Schorow in the course of doing my own research on bar-related Boston topics, and her book is a fascinating read. Her talk, which will feature newly discovered photos and explore various theories about the cause of the fire, happens on the 28th from 5:00-7:00 p.m. at Jamaicaway Books & Gifts, 676 Centre St. in Jamaica Plain.

The Boston Globe published a detailed remembrance of the Cocoanut Grove fire on its 50th anniversary in 1992, and the article serves as a good primer about the tragedy. One interesting tidbit among the hundreds connected to the event: one of the waiters who escaped the fire, Chico Adolf Cecchini, soon after began working at Locke-Ober, where he was headwaiter for about 40 years.

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12 Responses to “Remembering Cocoanut Grove”

  1. Patrick Maguire

    Fascinating stuff. Thank you for the resources. I just listened to most of Schorow’s lecture and read most of the Globe piece. Bay Village was mentioned as the location, but do you know the exact location of the fire? I’d like to take a walk by this weekend. Thank you.

  2. ljclark

    Thanks for reading up on this, Patrick. The Grove was on Piedmont St., and there is apparently a memorial plaque in the sidewalk at 17 Piedmont.

  3. MC Slim JB

    The exact location of the Grove is where the Radisson Hotel now stands at 200 Stuart Street. I remember two things about it; one, my mom telling me the story when I was 5 or 6, by way of explaining why public building doors now always open out (apparently an upgrade to public fire codes nationwide as a result of the tragedy), and scaring the living crap out of me. Two, reading a bit somewhere a few years back about a guy who barely got out alive, stumbled covered in soot down the block into the bar at Mario’s, and got himself a blast of rye to steady his nerves. Mario’s is still there, now the site of Erbaluce in Bay Village. I’m not certain, but I’m guessing the Grove would have been considered Bay Village in those days, too.

  4. k.

    Great topic Lauren. When one considers how few fatal fires there are in commercial buildings (it’s a rare occurrence), one must give some thought to the victims of the Cocoanut Grove and the lessons learned.

    Mind you, I’m always surprised when people don’t get the hell out when a fire alarm goes off. It took about 90 seconds for the fire at The Station nightclub to engulf the building: plenty of time to evacuate, but not a lot of time to ponder the options.

  5. ljclark

    Thanks for the input, gents. I’ve read Cocoanut Grove as being both in “Bay Village” and the “South End.” Are the two neighborhoods clearly separate from one another? Maybe they weren’t back in the ’40s? Thanks for mentioning the Station, k. People should raise a glass to those poor souls as well.

  6. mod betty / Retro Roadmap

    I always think of the Cocoanut Grove when I reach for the door of a public building, as that’s how I remembered they always swing out.

    My brother-in-law’s grandparents survived the fire and as the family story goes:

    “It was the night before he was shipping out with the Navy. She had bought some fancy new coat for the occasion and they hid under that coat and then got themselves into the walk in freezer and waited it out.”

  7. HJDeschenes

    My parents were both in that fire & survived miraculously by my father’s quick wits. How they got to the club was purely by chance. They were waiting for the trolley, my dad in uniform, & a man insisted he buy a service man a drink. They got into the car, had that one drink at the bar with the stranger, then came the flames on fish net material surrrounding the bar. My parents said their goodbyes, thinking they were not going to survive.
    My mother had just purchased a new fur type coat which she had been saving her secretarial salary for. She folded her coat insideout, hoping it would not get damaged. Funny the things that go thru your mind at the time & where your attention goes.
    Luckily she followed my father’s instincts. In the ensuing chaos, they went various places around the bar trying to escape. No exit. For awhile they stayed in a big walk in refrigerator, until my father got the feeling that this too was unsafe. More & more people were entering the frig. He then decided to go in a different direction from the crowd. Funny thing, my father, who never had a natural sense of direction was spot on this time. He led my mother on hands & knees, finally to an exit that the police & firemen had axed through.

    The coat was long forgotten. They had survived, with minor physical damages. Both were taken to different hospitals. Apparently the men were treated in separate places. They did not know each other’s condition till maybe the next day or so.

    My mother remembers clearly the awful smell of burnt flesh & the terrible moans & cries of fellow survivors. My father, who never really spoke of the incident, did so near the end of his life. When asked what was his greatest accomplishment was, he said without hesitation, “saving your mother from the Cocoanut Grove fire”.

    She, who was one follow her own mind, this time followed my father’s

  8. ljclark

    Wow, mod betty and HJ, I can’t thank you enough for your comments. You brought a tear to my eye.

  9. Mod Betty / Retro Roadmap

    I just got a comment on this link from Diner Hotline’s ( ) Larry Cultrera:

    “My late mother-in-law was supposed to go there that night but cancelled out. 2 or 3 people she knew died there. If she had gone I would not be married to Denise.”

  10. js02151

    My grandparents were supposed to go to the club that night with a group of friends. They had been waiting quite some time in the cold to get on a trolley to take them into the city. Most of the cars were packed and many people were unable to make it on. Neither of them had much interest in waiting out in the cold, so they decided to head back home. One of their female friends ended up making a train and had a drink with a service man in the club. Miraculously she left just before the fire spread upstairs. Sadly, she was struck by a train some time later and my grandmother never got over that ironic twist of fate.

  11. ljclark

    That is indeed ironic and sad, js. Thanks for the story.

  12. brendanjkearney

    As a Holy Cross grad I had always found this interesting…(had been told to me by a number of old timers from Holy Cross and just pasted it from wikipedia)

    The Boston College football team, undefeated and ranked number one in the nation, had made victory party reservations at the club for that evening but canceled after an upset 55–12 loss to unranked rival Holy Cross dampened their spirits.

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