A nightclub fire that claimed an astounding 492 lives — but has since been largely forgotten — is being revisited in a new off-Broadway play.
“Inferno! Fire at the Cocoanut Grove: 1942” will premier Friday at Theater 80 St. Marks in the East Village for a 25-show run. The show promises to take theatergoers back to the night of the horrific blaze that tore through the popular Boston nightspot.
The inferno is considered the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.
Many in the cast of 12 will play two roles — sometimes three — to give viewers an overview of the many lives affected by the Boston blaze. The 76th anniversary of the horrific event is Wednesday.
The body count at the Cocoanut Grove was nearly six times that of the infamous Bronx’s Happy Land fire in 1990, which took 87 lives. Scores more were left physically and psychologically scarred — with some suffering PTSD the remainder of their lives.
The blaze lead to major safety reforms nationwide and innovations in the treatment of burn patients.
At the time, the blaze was major news, and booted headlines about World War II — which the U.S. joined roughly a year earlier — off the covers and top folds of most newspapers across the country for a few days.
Yet, more than three quarters of a century later, few outside Boston know about the blaze. Playwright James Prince hopes to remedy that.
“The story has never been told like this before. It truly is a behind the scenes look into what happened that night,” says Prince, artistic director and founder of The Core Theatre. “It brings this immense tragedy down to the human level, revealing the lives of those who perished and the ways their stories echo down through time.”
Prince has a personal connection to the tragic event. One of the victims was a distant relative of his wife.
According to family lore, the relative had no intention of going to the Cocoanut Grove that night but was drafted by his roommate, who needed a wingman to sit with his date’s girlfriend.
When the fire broke out, Prince’s relative made it out but ran back in to see if he could find his date and was killed.
Prince did some research and learned the story was half-true: he made it out of one of the four bars in the building, but never left the building itself before turning back inside.
“(His date) had gotten out of a window in the ladies room and he died,” Prince said. “But when I did my research, I found that there was a much bigger story here.”
“Inferno!” was meticulously researched as Prince poured over newspaper articles and interviewed survivors. Several of the victims’ relatives saw versions of the play in Texas and Boston and were left in tears — stunned by how accurate it is, Prince said.
He hopes that the play will encourage people not to make the same mistakes Cocoanut Grove owners and the city of Boston did so many years ago.
“You have to be vigilant always,” Prince said. “Learning is not cumulative. These tragedies have to be relearned because people just don’t know about them. People tell the stories they are familiar with and from where they lived, but Boston didn’t tell this story. The city felt so guilty over what happened, they buried it under a rug.”
Today, stories like the Cocoanut Grove fire are more important than ever, he said.
“Since 2000 some 4,000 people have died in nightclub fires, so tragedies like this are still happening all over the world,” he said.
To purchase tickets, one can visit here.