BOSTON (CBS) – For the first time, the drama of the Cocoanut Grove fire is coming to a Boston stage. Nearly 500 people died in the overcrowded Boston nightclub on that cold November night in 1942. The tragedy devastated the city, but it has taken a playwright from Texas to bring this Boston drama back to life.
At one of the last rehearsals before Friday’s opening of “Inferno: Fire at the Cocoanut Grove 1942” they’re preparing for a six week run at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. The play is written and directed by James Hansen Prince who runs a small theatre company near Dallas called Core Theatre.
“It’s an incredible story that needs to be told,” he says. Prince got the idea for the play because a relative of his wife died in the tragedy. “Everybody was affected. Everybody knew somebody who was there, or somebody who was supposed to go there, or had just left,” Prince says.
Many of the characters are based on real people. There’s the teenager on a special date, the Grove’s owner, the cigarette girl, the club’s piano player and a 16-year-old busboy who is often blamed for starting the fire when he lit a match so he could see to change a light bulb.
But the true cause is still a mystery. Much of the decor was made from highly flammable fabric and paper. Many people blamed electrical problems and faulty inspections. The busboy was exonerated.
Michael Barry plays a Harvard student named James Jenkins. Jenkins died that night. Playing him is personal for Michael. His family lost four people in the fire. “My father would tell me stories. My grandmother would tell me stories. I do feel like I was called to do something like this,” says Barry.
Using a montage of dialogue the tragedy and heroism unfold. “What I want them to get out of this is, there’s hope in life, there’s forgiveness, there’s salvation,” says Prince.
One of the last monologue’s in the play is spoken by Michael Barry’s character, ending with these words: “Sometimes it’s hard to see how things like this fit into God’s grand design, but I know that good will come of it. It has to.”
A lot of good did came out of it. Sweeping changes in fire safety regulations were made across the country including mandating that doors open outward. The Grove’s doors opened inward so when people rushed to get out, the crushed up against those doors and they couldn’t be opened.
There were also advances in emergency medical care and in research into what we now call post traumatic stress. “Inferno” runs for six weeks at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts.
For more information visit: cocoanutgrovefire.org