80 Years Ago Today: The Cocoanut Grove Fire

November 28, 1942 was the date of one of the worst fires in American history, the burning of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston, which caused the death of 492 people. It is the biggest nightclub fire in U.S. history, leading two horrible ones from my living memory, Happyland in the Bronx (1990), and The Station in my home state of Rhode Island (2003). It has also been called the second deadliest single building fire, after the 1903 Iroquois Theatre Fire, which we wrote about here. (I imagine that the World Trade Center disaster of 2001 doesn’t get included in such reckonings because it consisted of two buildings, and it was a multifaceted catastrophe encompassing also a plane crash and two building collapses).

Boston’s Cocoanut Grove club was built in 1927, and it has caused me no end of confusion, because there was a much more famous nightclub in Los Angeles by that name which came into being in 1921. That’s not the one that burnt down; in fact it was open as late as 1989. The one in Boston, built by big band leaders Mickey Alpert and Jacques Renard, was clearly named after the one, a pretty common practice. The place was packed with Thanksgiving crowds on the night of the disaster. The headline act was female impersonator Arthur Blake. Musicians included piano player and singer Goody Goodelle and bassist Jack Lesberg.

To this day, no one knows for certain what caused the fire. It may have been a lit match tossed by a bus boy who had used it to illuminate a light blub socket when replacing a bulb. The place was full of paper mache decorations and the like, and the freon for the fridges had been replaced with methyl chloride, which is flammable, due to wartime scarcity. The place went up in an instant. Like most nightclubs, particularly in a town like Boston, the Cocoanut Grove was mobbed up, and safety regs, such as they were at the time, were flouted. Exits were locked and hidden. In the panic, hundreds were trampled, suffocated, and/or burnt. The most famous casualty of the fire was western star Buck Jones; his friend Scott Dunlap of Monogram Pictures and his wife both survived.

For more on show biz history, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.