A new documentary looks back at what remains the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history, as well as one of the most tragic chapters in the history of the City of Boston.
Written by Zachary Graves-Miller and Paul R. Miller and directed by Graves-Miller, “Six Locked Doors: The Legacy of Cocoanut Grove” begins with two local entertainers, Mickey Albert and Jacques Renard, opening Cocoanut Grove at 17 Piedmont St. in 1927, which was modeled after a nightclub bearing the same name in Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel. It was a beautiful venue with a ceiling that opened up to allow for dancing under the stars, but since the club opened at the height of Prohibition and consequently couldn’t serve alcohol, business was lean in the early years.
A gangster and one-time bootlegger who was described as the “Al Capone of Boston,’ 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.
At 10:15 p.m., the fire began in the Melody Lounge downstairs 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 while a bottleneck was created at a revolving door as patrons and employees attempted to flee to safety, as several survivors recall in the film.
One survivor recounts walking over corpses before reached a locked exit door, which a firefighter broke down to rescue him, while another said it took months to get the smell of smoke out of her hair.
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 andserved nearly four years before being pardoned by then-Gov. Maurice J. Tobin.
In the film, former-Boston Mayor Ray Flynn describes the fire “as a tragic event but [one that] did have an impact on public safety,” leading to major advances in burn and lung treatments, the advent of new legal precedents and the creation and enforcement of new safety rules were created and enforced.
Yet despite theses advances in public safety, the story of Coconut Grove still bears repeating as evinced by the 2003 Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., that resulted in 100 deaths; and the 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, Calif., which took 26 lives.
Visit sixlockeddoors.com for screening times, locations and more information.