Gripping tale of Cocoanut Grove fire to appear on local stage
All the ingredients of drama can be found in the harrowing events of the 1942 fire at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub: nearly 500 people died, many others had to fight their way back to health after suffering horrific injuries, and there were innumerable narrow escapes, acts of heroism, and “What if?” tales that have echoed down the years.
Yet it took a Texas playwright-actor-director who had never even been to Boston before last year to finally bring to the stage a tragedy that remains one of the most traumatic events in the city’s history.
On Wednesday, “Inferno: Fire at the Cocoanut Grove 1942” will begin performances at the Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts. Written and directed by James Hansen Prince, “Inferno’’ is apparently the first theatrical production about the devastating nightclub blaze — “a massive, humongous story about the ’40s and our society and about greed and selfishness,” said Prince. “The heroism was amazing. . . . There’s so many incredible stories, the way the whole city came together to help people out.’’
Prince, 56, who runs a small theater company near Dallas, said: “I don’t know why a guy from Texas has to do a seminal Boston story.”
He’s not the only one who finds that perplexing.
“I’ve thought for a long time that there really is a drama in the Cocoanut Grove fire that’s worth exploring,’’ said Boston-area writer Stephanie Schorow, whose book, “The Cocoanut Grove Fire,’’ was published in 2005. “What’s surprising is that it hasn’t been done before.”
Prince said he originally heard of the fire through family lore about a distant relative by marriage, who died in the blaze. He occasionally chokes up when talking about its victims. “I find I cry easier now,’’ he said.
He is taking a substantial financial gamble to put on the play. Prince took out a loan of $15,000 to help cover the $72,000 cost of the Boston production, which is roughly equivalent to his theater’s annual operating budget. A campaign on the fund-raising website GoFundMe yielded $27,000, and the remaining $30,000 will have to be paid during the play’s six-week run, which he anticipates paying with ticket proceeds.
There remains an aura of mystery around the real-life story he’s telling. The cause of the fire has never been officially determined. On the night of Nov. 28, 1942, an estimated 1,000 patrons — double the nightclub’s authorized capacity — were packed into the Cocoanut Grove, located in what is now Bay Village.
A fire lieutenant had inspected a new lounge a week before and declared it safe, even though the club abounded in flammable tropical-themed decorations and furnishings. Moreover, Barnett Welansky, the Cocoanut Grove’s owner, had apparently hired unlicensed electricians to install electrical fixtures. A contractor who raised the issue with Welansky later testified that the owner told him that was no cause for concern because Welansky had close ties to Mayor Maurice J. Tobin. Faulty wiring was one of the many suspected causes of the blaze.
Welansky and Tobin are characters in “Inferno.’’ The mayor is depicted in the play as determined to avoid any political damage connected to lax inspections of the club. Welansky was convicted of manslaughter because of the fire, served three years in prison, and died shortly after he was released.
Another character in Prince’s play is Stanley Tomaszewski, a 16-year-old busboy who was blamed by many for starting the blaze. On the night of the fire, a young couple had removed a light bulb near their table, desiring privacy, and Tomaszewski was ordered to replace the bulb. The youth lit a match so he could see while screwing the bulb back into his socket, then extinguished the match by stepping on it. Shortly thereafter, flames were seen in that area. Even though an investigation did not find Tomaszewski at fault, a stigma clung to him for the rest of his life.
Whatever the cause, the blaze spread with terrifying speed, and many were trapped. A revolving door that served as the club’s main entrance quickly became jammed as customers tried to escape. Other doors, designed to open inwards, were quickly blocked by a crush of humanity. Long before that night, some exits had been blocked to prevent customers from leaving without paying.
“With the panic, they weren’t able to open the doors,’’ Prince said, shaking his head and shifting to the present tense. “Lights are out. People are dropping because of the poisons in the air. It could very easily have been averted, just by having well-marked exits.’’
A cast of 14 will portray 21 characters in “Inferno,’’ including cowboy movie star Buck Jones; pianist-singer Goody Goodelle, known for performing atop a revolving platform in the club; Harvard premed student James Jenkins; and “cigarette girl’’ Shirley Leslie. Jenkins and Leslie died in the fire, and Jones died two days later.
Believing the play needed a strong female character, Prince also invented a newspaper reporter named Margaret Wilson. In the play, Wilson interviews Welansky before the fire, for what she calls “a fluff piece,’’ then the morning after the blaze, and finally after he is released from prison.
Structured as a mosaic of voices, “Inferno’’ draws heavily on transcripts of accounts by survivors and witnesses that were assembled by investigators from Boston’s Fire and Police departments, along with newspaper and TV interviews. The playwright also talked with descendants of survivors and experts like Schorow and former Boston fire commissioner Paul Christian.
Prince first got the idea for the play in 1990. Shortly after he got married, his wife’s grandmother told him that her nephew, Jenkins, had escaped the Cocoanut Grove fire but died when he went back in to rescue his date.
“I said ‘Wow, that would make a great play,’ ” Prince recalled. (He later learned that Jenkins had not gotten out of the club but did indeed go searching for his date before succumbing.)
For a long time, though, Prince didn’t write the story he found so gripping. He was busy pursuing an acting career in television and on film while raising three children with his wife, Annette. He also wrote eight other plays and founded the Core Theatre in Richardson, Texas, near Dallas, where he is artistic director and where “Inferno’’ was performed last year. In 2014, concluding that “I need to write this story,’’ he began gathering material.
Prince’s goal is to bring “Inferno’’ to New York, but first he’s hoping his play will revive memories of the Cocoanut Grove fire in the city where it happened, while introducing a younger generation of Bostonians to a tragedy he believes should never be forgotten.
“This changed Boston,’’ he said. “Now they have some shared history to talk about.’’