Metro

75 years later, Cocoanut Grove fire still haunts

Marshall Cole, 92, of Falmouth, was a dancer at the Cocoanut Grove. He was in his dressing room when the fire broke out in the nightclub.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Marshall Cole, 92, of Falmouth, was a dancer at the Cocoanut Grove. He was in his dressing room when the fire broke out in the nightclub.

Cleo Webster rarely spoke of the Cocoanut Grove fire, but it followed her throughout her life.

Her home in Brookline had 18 fireplaces, but none were ever lit. At gatherings, Webster preferred to sit on the end of the aisle and always noted the exits. She taught her four daughters to be careful around their electric stove.

On Monday, Webster died at age 98, but in her final months she described her escape from the fire to a documentary filmmaker, Zachary Graves-Miller. The film, “Six Locked Doors,” debuted Saturday before about 400 people who gathered at the Revere Hotel to mark the 75th anniversary of the tragedy.

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“She was haunted by this,” said Heather William, Webster’s daughter, who attended the event. “She explained to me that she had been in the Cocoanut Grove fire and that she didn’t want to talk about it, essentially.”

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The fire erupted on Nov. 28, 1942, and killed 492 people, many of whom couldn’t escape through exits that were locked to prevent patrons from skipping out on their bills. It was the second-deadliest single-building fire in American history behind the Iroquois Theater fire, which killed 602 people in Chicago in 1903.

JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF
Survivor Joyce Mekelburg attended a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the Cocoanut Grove fire.

Two survivors, Joyce S. Mekelburg, 93, of Brockton, and Marshall Cole, 92, of Falmouth, shared their stories from the fire at the gathering, which was organized by the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee.

The event was held at the Revere Hotel because it sits where the nightclub once stood in Bay Village.

Mekelburg, then 18, went to the nightspot with her fiance, Justin Morgan. She said a man lit a match to change a light bulb before flames broke out.

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“It started over my head. It started on me,” Mekelburg said in an interview.

Morgan told her to leave and promised to meet her outside, she said. Mekelburg climbed the stairs amid a panicked crowd of people looking for the exit.

“Everybody around me was screaming and crawling,” she said. “Nobody knew where to go or how to go and everybody was crawling in a different direction.”

Mekelburg escaped, but Morgan did not.

“It changed everything in my life. I was going to marry this man. We were happy we were sitting there and laughing,” she said. “You love one person. You can’t possibly get that person back.”

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Mekelburg’s daughter, Lesley Kaufman, said she only learned that her mother had escaped the fire when she was in middle school and read Paul Benzaquin’s book, “Holocaust! Fire in Boston’s Cocoanut Grove.”

“I read this book and her name was in there,” Kaufman said. “She never talked about it.”

The cause of the fire has never been officially determined. On the night of the fire an estimated 1,000 patrons — double the nightclub’s authorized capacity — were packed inside.

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 was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, setting the legal precedent that a conscious failure to address dangerous conditions was basis enough for guilt. He was later pardoned by Tobin, who had become governor.

Stanley Tomaszewski, a 16-year-old busboy, 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 teenager 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.

A plaque commemorating the blaze was dedicated on Piedmont Street in 1993. It was moved after the owners of new condos successfully petitioned the Bay Village Neighborhood Association last year to have it relocated, sparking an outcry from the relatives of those who died in the fire and those who survived .

The plaque now sits a block away, at the corner of Piedmont Street and Cocoanut Grove Lane.

Cole, who was a tap dancer at the Cocoanut Grove, said the fire started as he was waiting to give his second performance of the night.

Normally, Cole said, he spent time between shows in the Melody Lounge, but the night of the fire he retreated to his dressing room.

“The place was just mobbed. It was standing-room only,” he said. “I said, ‘I’ll stay up in my dressing room where it’s nice and quiet.’ And that saved my life because I would have been in the Melody Lounge.”

Webster’s daughter, William, said she was grateful her mother shared her story before she died. She fled through a revolving door that jammed as patrons tried to flee.

In Graves-Miller’s film, Webster recalled her escape.

“People were trying to get out the revolving door, but it was stuck, but we went through,” she said. “We looked back and no one else came behind us.”

A plaque honors the 492 people killed in the fire.
JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF
A plaque honors the 492 people killed in the fire.

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.