(Recounted by Casey Grant- Fire Protection Research Foundation Executive Director)
On Friday evening (26/Feb) my wife Cathy and I attended the play “Inferno: Fire at the Cocoanut Grove 1942” at the Core Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts theatre complex. It was a great show and I was part of a post-show talk-back panel answering questions from the audience, along with former Boston Fire Department Commissioner Paul Christian and author Stephanie Schorow. Truly a unique experience!
Rich in content, the dialogue was fascinating and provided a realistic portrayal of this tragic disaster. It was a straight-forward production, and the solid cast provided a noteworthy representation of a wide span of colorful characters. Their monologues and multiple scenes effectively engaged the audience using a straight-forward set, centered primarily on the Grove’s nightclub atmosphere and related locations, before and after the fire.
Not only was the story accurate, but the post fire scenes stressed the significant advances that came from the tragedy. They gently but firmly emphasized that valuable lessons ultimately came about, and those who suffered did not do so in vain. The importance of the work of emergency responders and fire safety organizations like NFPA were mentioned more than once, as well as being prominently highlighted in the program.
For me, this was not just another show. Beyond the story itself, I felt like I was in a surreal reality, listening to voices and seeing the faces of people whose stories I had heard many times but could only imagine. Eerily, I’ve previously had conversations with some of the main characters in the play. These people survived and witnessed the fire but have since left this world, and seeing their characters again had a dreamlike quality.
Not long after I started at NFPA in 1988 I decided I wanted to write an article for NFPA Journal on something that was full of passion and non-technical. As I poked around on this thought, it became clear that touching on a historical event was a worthy and safe approach. But on what?
A little more digging, and I realized that a few years hence (i.e., 1992) would be the 50th anniversary of the famed Cocoanut Grove Fire, an incredible tragedy in the City of Boston that took 492 lives and left a deep scar on the fire safety landscape.
Published in the May/June 1991 edition of NFPA Journal as “The Last Dance at the Cocoanut Grove”, I constructed the story around the personal eyewitness testimony of survivors and participants. Locating these individuals prior to the 50th anniversary (in 1992) required significant investigative work. Today, all have now passed from this world to the next.
I allowed the story to be told by the following five participants in the event: Hewson Gray, a patron that survived with his wife Hilde; Daniel Weiss, a bartender in the Melody Lounge; Red Graney of the Boston Fire Department and on one of the first arriving units that stumbled on the fire while at a nearby car fire; Dr Francis Moore who was in charge of the emergency room at Mass General Hospital that fateful evening; and John Collins with the US Navy that responded with other military units. I interviewed each of them, and they told me their stories, and I simply packaged them together. In the play, three of these characters came back to life: Hewson Gray, Daniel Weiss, and Red Graney. Very, very strange indeed.
“Inferno: Fire at the Cocoanut Grove 1942” will have a six-week run, from February 24 to April 3. The Core Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts theatre complex is located at 539 Tremont Street, Boston. With a parking garage underneath the complex and plenty of great restaurants in the complex and nearby, it makes a great evening out.
The production was written and directed by James Hansen Prince, a Texas playwright-actor-director. His connection is a personal one, with a relative from his wife’s family lost in the disaster, and one of the play’s characters. This is considered the first theatrical production about the devastating nightclub blaze, and it’s intended as a tribute to never forget. Significant advances have been linked to this disaster, and this play allows us to reflect on the somber thought that those who died and those who suffered did not do so in vain.
I highly recommend it.