Thursday, May 4, 2023

HGB Ep. 485 - Cocoanut Grove Fire

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Moment in Oddity - Mummified Squirrel

Many of us have undoubtedly watched one of the six Ice Age movies circa 2002. When our sons were young they loved the character Scrat, a saber toothed squirrel who was always getting himself into precarious predicaments while chasing after his beloved acorns. Although the depiction of this comical character may not be accurate, back in 2018, there was a discovery of a 30,000 year old fluffy furball in Canada that was determined to be an actual ice aged squirrel. It definitely was not as cute and amusing as the movie's Scrat. It was described as a "mangled lump of mummified flesh". However a recent reexamination of the fortuitous fuzzy, albeit it funky find uncovered a far more fascinating story. The poor creature was mummified during mid-hibernation and has been identified as an Arctic ground squirrel. Amazingly, this ancient species still exists today where the 'permafrost' squirrel was discovered. The specimen will soon be on display at the Beringia Centre in Canada. Although an incredible find, a species that existed 30,000 years ago being nearly identical to an existing animal species today, certainly is odd.

This Month in History - Birth of Golda Meir

In the month of May, on the 3rd, in 1898, Golda Meir was born in Kyiv within the Russian Empire. Her father emigrated to the United States for work in 1903 and in 1906, Golda and her family followed and settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. From a young age Golda was a natural leader, organizing the American Young Sisters Society, a fundraiser to pay for her classmates' textbooks in 1908. She graduated as her class's valedictorian. Golda was a driven woman and found many opportunities to lead in her community. Her marriage, in 1917 had the precondition of settling in Palestine. After the conclusion of World War I, the couple moved to Palestine and were eventually accepted into kibbutz Merhavia in the Jezreel Valley after an initial rejected application. Golda became a politician and served as the fourth Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974. She was Israel's first and only female head of government in the Middle East. Known by the moniker as "The Iron Lady", she had the reputation for being down-to-earth and a very persuasive orator. Golda Meir also served as labor minister and foreign minister. Due to Israel's initial severe losses during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Meir resigned following angry outcries by the public. Golda Meir died in 1978 due to lymphoma.

Cocoanut Grove Fire

The year was 1942 and World War II was raging. The Battle of Midway had recently turned the tide of the naval war to the Allies, but there were still a few years left before the War would be over. Americans were looking for ways to distract themselves and nightclubs fit the bill. The Cocoanut Grove in Boston started as a speakeasy and grew to become a very popular club. That year, 1942, the nightclub burned to the ground with hundreds of patrons trapped inside. This would be the second deadliest nightclub fire in US history. And although the area where the club was once located has completely changed, the spirits have refused to leave the site of their tragic ends. Join us for the history and hauntings of the Cocoanut Grove fire.

The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles opened in January of 1921. This was a lavish resort hotel that attracted a celebrity clientele. A few months after opening the hotel, the main ballroom was converted into a nightclub called The Cocoanut Grove. Before long, The Cocoanut Grove was world famous. This club inspired orchestra bandleaders Mickey Alpert and Jacques Renard to name their new club that they opened in Boston in 1927, The Cocoanut Grove. Prohibition was in full force at the time, so this was a speakeasy that soon became a hangout for Mafia gangs. Much of the financing came from California mobster and swindler Jack Berman. This early rendition of the club was located in a renovated brick and concrete garage and warehouse complex near the Boston Common. Alpert wanted a roaring twenties’-style nightclub. Over the years, rooms would be added so that the nightclub was a cluster of lounges, bars and dining rooms with orchestral entertainment and dancing.

The decor of the nightclub was fashioned on a South Seas theme. The walls were dingy, but patrons would never know because they were lined with imitation leather, rattan and bamboo and satin linen draped down from the ceiling. There were pillars on the sides of the dance floor that resembled palm trees and they had large paper palm fronds that extended out over the floor and the light fixtures looked like coconuts. And yes, we said paper, keep that in mind. Inside the main dining room was an elevated area nicknamed The Terrace that had wrought iron railings around it. This was treated like a VIP area. A narrow stairway led down to the basement where the Melody Lounge was located. This was an intimate area that was a bar with a singer and a piano on a small revolving stage. This was a very dark space with a bit of neon under the bar and one soft light in the center of the room.

Alpert and Renard eventually sold to Boston Charlie who was a Gangland bootlegger and boss named Charles King Solomon in 1931. The New York Times reported on January 25, 1933 that "Cabaret Gunmen Kill King Solomon, Boston Racketeer is shot by four in Roxbury after ignoring a warning." So the mighty King Solomon was gunned down in the bathroom of The Cotton Club and with that his interest and ownership in The Cocoanut Grove passed to his lawyer Barnet Welansky, whom everyone called Barney. Welansky made many changes at the nightclub to keep a better eye on his bottom line. He liked money and he hated losing it. So he hired teenagers to work as busboys so that he could pay them a pittance. Street criminals were brought in to serve as bouncers. And emergency exits were all locked and hidden behind drapes or in the case of one of the doors, it was completely bricked up. Welansky didn't want anyone leaving before they paid their bill. And as we mentioned earlier, this club kept expanding and soon it was a hard maze of rooms to navigate.

Clearly, the listeners are cluing into some troubling issues in this club. Imagine all of these circumstances with a confusing layout, hidden and locked exits and flammable materials. On top of that, the mob had connections in the Building Department and licensing boards, so fire codes were easily ignored. Inspections were merely formalities. By 1942, The Cocoanut Grove had tripled its size and was big enough that it ran along Piedmont Street, Shawmut Street and Broadway Street. A new section of the club called the New Broadway Lounge had just opened earlier in November of 1942 and the club was more popular than ever.

Saturdays were always packed at the Cocoanut Grove and November 28, 1942 was no exception. Over 1,000 people were in the club that had an occupancy limit of 460. Female impersonator Arthur Blake was the headliner for the evening. He liked to impersonate Eleanor Roosevelt and Bette Davis. Things at The Cocoanut Grove started ramping up at 10 o'clock. Everyone was having a great time. Cowboy celebrity Buck Jones was hanging with a group of war bond promoters in the Terrace. The Melody Lounge was filled with the ivory tickling of pianist Goody Goodelle. A young soldier wanted to neck with his girlfriend in a corner, so he unscrewed the lightbulb in the artificial palm tree near them. A busboy was told to go screw the lightbulb back in and unfortunately he had no flashlight so he decided to light a match in order to see what he was doing. This busboy was 16-year-old Stanley Tomaszewski. He extinguished the match once he got the lightbulb screwed in, but he didn't notice that some of the fake palm fronds had been lit with fire. At least this was the claim of some witnesses. Later, Tomaszewski's actions could not be found to be the source of the fire. A couple waiters tried to douse the flames with water, but the fake palm fronds lit up across all the decor and the hanging satin soon caught fire as well. This pulled the fire up the staircase into the main part of the nightclub.

A Marine named Don Lauer jumped up with a knife and tried to cut the fabric free from the ceiling to prevent the spread. Flames dripped from the ceiling down onto patrons and everyone in the basement ran for the stairway. Clothing and hair caught fire. Four hundred people tried to climb the stairs while at the same time the fire climbed the ceiling. The stairs were soon jammed with people. Patrons upstairs got a taste of the fire when a fireball burst through the front entryway and spread through jumble of dining rooms and lounges. Thick smoke filled the club. Only five minutes had passed from the first flames being spotted in the basement to the entire nightclub being engulfed in flames and smoke. There was only one exit. And that one exit unfortunately had a single revolving door. So you can imagine that within seconds that exit was useless as bodies piled up in the door and jammed it. There was enough air coming through the door to pull the fire through the door, so trapped patrons in the doorway were incinerated. Firefighters couldn't even get near the door until they doused it with water. And there also no way for the firefighters to get into the building. All doors were either locked or opened inward, so with the crush of bodies, those doors were not going to open. Hundreds could have been saved had those doors simply opened outward.

People from buildings around the nightclub raced to help. Another issue with the evening was that it was freezing outside. Water froze on the ground and made hoses hard to move. Burn victims with scorched lungs died immediately upon coming outside and breathing the cold air. By 11:02, the fire was a five alarm fire. The fire was out within thirty minutes after it started. Firefighters were left with the horrible task of removing bodies. When firefighters went through the building, they found some victims still sitting at their tables with drinks having been overcome with smoke quickly. The basement was surprisingly not very burned since the flames just traveled across the ceiling. Many bodies in the club were found burned beyond recognition. One woman was found in a phone booth dead, still holding the phone. Hospitals all around Boston were swamped with the dead and living. Doctors triaged as best they could. They were thankfully prepared for this kind of tragedy because they had all been trained for the World War. Boston City Hospital received 300 bodies, with 168 people dead on arrival. Massachusetts General Hospital received 114 bodies with 75 already dead. There were even living people sent to the morgues who were found to be alive and sent to hospitals. The youngest victim of the fire was fifteen-year-old Eleanor Chiampa. In total, 492 died in the fire making this the second deadliest nightclub fire in American history. This was just a horrific event with the worst in people being brought out. Many people had been trampled to death. Bodies that were laid out on the sidewalks were robbed of their valuables.

Actor Buck Jones was severely burned and died a couple days later in the hospital. Even though he didn't own the club anymore, Bandleader Alpert was performing that evening. He managed to escape, but the music director Bernie Fazioli and several members of the band died. Much of the staff survived as they were in more protected areas with access to windows and they knew the layout of the club better. Several kitchen workers closed themselves in the walk-in cooler. Another of the survivors was Ruth Strogoff. She and her husband Hyman were regulars at the Melody Lounge. They had made it to the stairs quickly but were pulled apart from each other and Hyman was pushed down to the floor and trampled to death. Ruth had tried to pull him up, but her hat and jacket caught fire, so she rushed upstairs and rolled on the floor to put the flames out. She ran outside, forced to leave her husband behind. 

Matt Lane got to the stairs and used the railing to pull himself forward up over people. He had to leave behind his friend Don Lauer who had cut the burning fabric from the ceiling. The men had become separated and Don wouldn't make it out alive. The bartender for the Melody Lounge, Daniel Weiss, made it to safety as did pianist Goody Goodelle. The men had soaked napkins in water and held them up to their faces as they laid on the ground. They crawled to the kitchen and escaped through a window. A patron named Don Jeffers managed to get to the kitchen and went into the refrigerator with employees. Charles and Peggy Disbrow got to the kitchen and found a boarded up window that they managed to pull the boards from and even though the outside was blocked by a pipe, they manged to get out. Several other people followed them and they ended up running through the back door of an apartment building which led them through Margaret Foley's apartment. Margaret watched as nearly fifty people made their way through her apartment. A male patron got to two large windows on Broadway Street that had glass block. He tried to break through and managed to make a hole big enough for him to start through, but he became stuck and firefighters had to watch helplessly as he burned to death. Joyce Spector was pulled to safety by somebody who tossed her down on the sidewalk. She was soon joined by several other survivors. Her fiance, Justin Morgan, wasn't one of those people.  Newlyweds John O’Neil and Claudia Nadeau O’Neil died celebrating their union. Their best man and maid of honor died as well.

Something good that came from the tragedy was advancing the care of burn victims for the future. The charts developed from this are still used today. Some victims were the first to be given penicillin. The investigation into the fire would reveal that there was criminal action involved. Boston’s Fire Commissioner, Arthur Reilly, convened a series of public hearings to determine the cause of the fire and more than 100 witnesses were interviewed. The inquest revealed that club owner Barney Welansky was at fault for much of what happened. He had locked doors, skipped safety measures and paid off public officials. An inspector for the fire department, Lieutenant Frank Linney, had gone through the building eight days before the fire and passed pretty much everything and even wrote that there were no flammable decorations and that there were plenty of exits. One person who may have been at fault owned up to what he did and that was 16-year-old Stanley Tomaszewski. He testified that he had lit the match to see what he was doing and that he thought he had stomped out the match properly, but he couldn't be sure that it hadn't started the fire. And this clearly was what started it all. His life was threatened and he had to be put under protective guard.

Ten indictments were handed down and Barney Welansky was found guilty on 19 counts of manslaughter. He was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison, but just three years into serving his sentence, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The mayor of Boston quietly pardoned him and he died nine weeks after his release. Stanley Tomaszewski was scarred by the tragedy, but did manage to go to college, marry, have kids and live to the age of 68. The burned out shell of the Cocoanut Grove was demolished in September of 1945. For years, part of the footprint of the club was just a parking lot. Surrounding streets were reconfigured to allow for the construction of the Boston Radisson Hotel and Theater Complex. Today, the hotel that is here is called the Revere Hotel. In 2015, a condominium building was built at 25 Piedmont Street. The club had been at 17 Piedmont Street, so parts of the condos are in the club's footprint as well. All that is left of the terrible tragedy is a small bronze plaque with the Cocoanut Grove’s floor plan and the following words, "In memory of the more than 490 people who died in the Cocoanut Grove fire on November 28, 1942. As a result of that terrible tragedy, major changes were made in the fire codes, and improvements in the treatment of burn victims, not only in Boston but across the nation. 'Phoenix out of the Ashes.'" This was prepared by the Bay Village Neighborhood Association. The plaque was crafted by Anthony P. Marra, the youngest survivor of the Cocoanut Grove fire. They embedded it in the sidewalk in 1993. It's been moved several times and there are plans to build a bigger and proper memorial. 

Most victims of the fire have moved on in peace, but some spirits have remained. Employees of the Boston Radisson claimed to have had experiences. Some saw what they came to realize were apparitions, but at the time they looked like fully alive people. They seemed out of place as they were disheveled and looked confused. Some of these spirits would appear out of nowhere and then disappear just as quickly. Odd noises have been heard like loud popping sounds, there are weird flashes of light and the scent of smoke. The Stuart Street Playhouse had been the Radisson’s theatre and hosted five ghosts from the fire. The quiet, shadowy figure of a man was seen walking down a hallway or was sometimes seen in a doorway. He would fade away if approached. People hear disembodied voices and sometimes they would hear their names being called. Water was very haunted here. There was the sound when no water was running. Faucets would turn themselves on by themselves. And one of the more bizarre stories claims that employees found a seat completely soaked in the auditorium with no discernible cause. There has been flooding in the building, again without an actual cause for that to happen. 

A woman named Wendy Reardon told Sam Baltrusis in his 2012 "Ghosts of Boston" book that when she visited the location of the former Cocoanut Grove that was at the time a parking lot, "I went into the parking lot and just stood there...and the sadness. It wasn't only the sadness I felt though, it was shock and we were just having a great time, now it's an inferno and now it's burning. More surprise than anything."

Jacques' Cabaret is located at 79 Broadway Street. In 1942, this location was a straight bar that had opened in 1938. The night of the fire this location was turned into a temporary morgue and bodies were laid out side by side in rows as they waited for identification and transport. Eventually this location became a gay bar, mainly for lesbians in the 1960s and 1970s and then it became the cabaret bar. A former bartender said, "Spooky stuff happened there all the time." And one of those strange things happened to him. He was closing things up late one night and he left the bar area to collect some supplies and when he returned he found bodies lying in long rows on the floor. The lights were very dim, so he flipped on the brighter overhead lights and the bodies disappeared. An employee at Jacques wrote in 2015, "I work at Jacques and we do shows downstairs. When I'm there alone I swear I hear and see things. It's spooky! When it's dark and I'm at work early or late, I am always saying 'NOT TONIGHT GHOST PEOPLE!!! NOT TONIGHT!' as I run through the dark."

Patrons at the Cocoanut Grove went from celebrating and partying and enjoying themselves in one moment to abject horror in another. Hundreds died, many before they even knew what was happening. It isn't surprising that some of their energies are either stuck or clinging to the location of their deaths. Is the site of the former Cocoanut Grove Haunted? That is for you to decide!

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