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New film explores legacy of Boston’s Cocoanut Grove fire

“Six Locked Doors: The Legacy of Cocoanut Grove,” features interviews with survivors in their 90s, many of whom never before talked publicly


In this Nov. 28, 1942 file photo, firefighters inspect the ruins of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston, where 492 people died in a fire. A 2019 documentary film, “Six Locked Doors: The Legacy of Cocoanut Grove,” tells the story of the disaster that led to an overhaul and stricter enforcement of building safety codes.

Photo/AP, File

Associated Press

BOSTON — Even though Boston’s Cocoanut Grove fire happened long before she was born, Michele Shapiro learned all about the disaster when she was a girl.

Her grandfather, Frank Shapiro, was at a nearby theater with his wife the night of Nov. 28, 1942, when a blaze tore through the swanky Cocoanut Grove nightclub, killing 492 people. The young lawyer helped with the rescue efforts and later represented the survivors and the estates of the victims.

“I grew up hearing about this case because it was such a big part of his life,” Michele Shapiro said. When she heard a filmmaker was making a documentary about the disaster, she had to get involved.

The result is “Six Locked Doors: The Legacy of Cocoanut Grove,” a nearly 70-minute film that features interviews with survivors in their 90s, many of whom never before talked publicly. The movie also includes archival footage, still photographs and an examination of the incompetence and corruption that allowed the conditions that led to the fire.

The film has been screened several times, but producer Shapiro and director-writer Zachary Graves-Miller are now trying to raise money to distribute the movie to a wider audience to restore the disaster to public consciousness.

“We think it’s a really, really important story to tell,” said Shapiro, a Wayland, Massachusetts, native who now lives in New York. “This disaster was the basis for modern day fire codes, and not many people know that. Four hundred ninety-two people died, but their lives weren’t lost in vain because it led to so many safety measures.”

On the night of the fire, the Cocoanut Grove was packed with about 1,000 people, double its capacity. Exit doors were locked to stop patrons from skipping out on their bills.

The fire reportedly started when a teenage busboy lit a match to see a light socket and replace a burned-out bulb in an artificial palm tree. The tree caught fire, and the panicked crowd surged to the revolving exit doors, which quickly became jammed with stacked-up bodies.

Hundreds of people were trapped inside, killed by flames and toxic gases.

The documentary looks at the tragedy from a fresh perspective, said Stephanie Schorow, a journalist and author of the book “The Cocoanut Grove Fire.”

“This movie is the first attempt to really cover the victims of the fire, and it really focuses on the people hurt,” said Schorow, who is interviewed in the film.

The fire led to an overhaul and stricter enforcement of building safety codes across the nation.

It also led to advances in the treatment of burns and lung injuries, as well as legal precedents in punishing those responsible, said Casey Grant, executive director emeritus of the Fire Protection Research Foundation, a nonprofit based in Massachusetts. It also changed the way responses to large-scale disasters are managed, he said.

“The impact of Cocoanut Grove was enormous,” he said.

Nearly half of the 1,000 people who were in the building that night died, and about half the survivors were injured, Grant said.

“You had a one-in-four chance of getting out of there unscathed,” he said.

One of the major safety legacies of the blaze is that revolving doors in public buildings are now always flanked by two outward-swinging doors.

The movie is a crucial reminder for people to remain aware of fire protection and safety practices, even 77 years later.

“We are continually fighting complacency,” Grant said, pointing to The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island, in 2003, and the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, California, in 2016. “Films like this are hugely important to remind us about the lessons of history.”