Shaken by the propelling coincidence in my reading of Dante's Inferno the day before the Twin Towers fiery finish, I sat before my blank computer screen, waiting for 1942 Boston to appear. I entertained the thought of playing 40's swing music, but it was just too upbeat. Searching my music library, I came across Loreena McKennitt's haunting "Dante's Prayer" :
"From the fountain of forgiveness
Beyond the ice and the fire
Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me."
When 1942 finally arrived, I heard those cello-laden lyrics play dozens of times. I set my CD player to repeat until the restaurant finally appeared in all its swank and swoon.
More than anything, Ken and I wanted to write a love story that would survive when all else was lost. Ken and I allowed history and ruby slippers to guide us. After reading the stories of the real Daniel and Dorothy, we imagined and developed fictional characters loosely based on them and imagined fate bringing them together at a not so enchanted Emerald City. As our synopsis states: "The week before the fire, love sparks between handsome Daniel Cohen, the owner's nephew, and the new star singer, tantalizing Dorothy James. Daniel hides his passion for Dorothy from his fiancée Annie, the daughter of the local mob boss and owner of the club. Despite the risks, Daniel falls in love and decides to follow his heart. Daniel and Dorothy's forbidden relationship sizzles, ignites and explodes on the night of the fire." When our script consultant revealed he became so engrossed in the love story (for 80+ pages) that he forgot about the fire, we knew we got it right.
Besides the coincidences, the love story, and the fire, the other intriguing tale to tell about Cocoanut Grove was about the regulars at the club. People like Tony, the 15 year old bus boy who made it out alive by stuffing his head in a vat of ice cream to breathe; Bunny, the bosomy cigarette girl who was considered the face of Cocoanut Grove and Pepper, the brash and sassy dancer who dated the saxophone player in the club's band. One more well-known story was of Coastguardsman Cliff Johnson, who staged a miraculous recovery after receiving burns over 50% of his body from repeatedly rushing back into the burning club to try and save as many people as possible. Sadly, the flames of fate would eventually hunt Cliff down, claiming him as Cocoanut Grove's final victim.
After Ken and I finished our final draft, Cocoanut Grove eventually made its way to Hollywood in the form of a producer who fell in love with the love story, and wanted to produce the movie. Around the same time, the deadly nightclub fire at The Station in Rhode Island brought an unwelcome coincidence into the picture. The entire time we were writing the script, we always assumed what happened at Cocoanut Grove was a matter of history, and would never happen again.
The producer in Hollywood was never able to find the funding for the movie. We've since pitched it elsewhere and received phenomenal reviews, but no takers. There may be many reasons why we haven't sold it yet (it's not for a lack of dedication and effort) yet one thought continually haunts us. Cocoanut Grove is not an LA story. It's a Boston story, and belongs in Boston. It's a part of Boston's history and people.
About five years ago, at the town hall in a small New Hampshire town where I used to live, I was chatting in casual conversation about the writing of the Cocoanut Grove screenplay when the man I was telling it to nodded toward an elderly lady who had just walked in. She was there, he said, at the Grove. She's a survivor. Amazed, I hesitated approaching her, not sure about bringing up such a disturbing topic. Since it suddenly brought us together, I listened to fate. After introducing myself as a writer, I ever so gently asked her if she would mind sharing her story about her experience at the Cocoanut Grove fire. Over 60 years later, tears immediately welled in her eyes as she said "I can still remember the smell." After years of researching and writing the story, the horrors of Cocoanut Grove finally became real to me.
Around the same time, Ken introduced me to a local producer, Joe Cummings. Joe was so taken with Cocoanut Grove that he compiled a CD of 40's era music, including We'll Meet Again, adding Dante's Prayer as the last song on the CD. When I listen to the CD now, it's not just the fire and era that come alive, but all the coincidences behind the writing of our story.
Joe and I became friends, and collaborated on other projects together. More than anyone, Joe helped me see the significance in playing in our own backyard, but also to uphold an even grander vision. Through all my twisted travels on the yellow brick show biz road over the last decade, I've come to realize that when Cocoanut Grove finally comes alive on the silver screen, for it to become real enough to enlighten as well as entertain, it must be made in Boston. More importantly, in every step of the production process, we need to be mindful about making a movie about a local event that devastated so many. Like the characters in our story, we must follow our hearts. As Pepper advises a distraught Dorothy just before the fire, "You know sweetie, I may be just a poor, dumb working girl, but even I know what shapes our lives." Dorothy looks up, perplexed. "Love."
On Saturday January 25, 2013 I decided it was time to write this article as a mean to raise awareness of this project, and chose its theme to be the coincidences surrounding the writing of Cocoanut Grove. The very next morning, I learned of the nightclub fire in Brazil. Like The Station nightclub fire, all over the news were comparisons to Cocoanut Grove. As I typed fervently away, this latest troubling coincidence jolting me with renewed determination and purpose, I came across a comment thread on an online national news outlet where a man wrote the following about the Brazilian Kiss fire: "When I was a teenager, my parents told me over and over about the Coconut Grove nightclub fire in Boston, and since then I have tried to avoid similar situations while working in the music business for years.”
A Memorial Plaque was embedded into the sidewalk of Piedmont and Church streets where Cocoanut Grove once stood, honoring those lost in the Cocoanut Grove fire. Beside a picture of the floor plan of the nightclub, it reads:
The Cocoanut Grove. Erected by the Bay Village Association, 1993. In memory of the more than 490 people that 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.'
Recently, a Cocoanut Grove coalition formed in Boston as "a collaborative effort that brings together original and secondary sources from the collections of local Boston institutions and people interested in preserving the history of the fire."
On the Celebrate Boston website, there is a page about the Cocoanut Grove disaster, with a comment thread indicating that many share the sentiment of the following comment: "28-11-2012 Today is the 70th anniversary of the fire. Still no significant memorial and it didn't make a headline. I wish a non-profit could be set up to fund an adequate memorial. The victims are not forgotten."
Considering the uprising of the the coalition, New England Studios, public interest and more importantly, history repeating itself, it's time to make this film.
Producing a movie to raise awareness, help save lives and offer a suitable tribute are all noble intentions. Yet underlying such a bold hope is another less obvious and more common one. Cocoanut Grove was written as an epic hero's journey. Our script consultant considered the screenplay "Smart and sophisticated. Titanic-like. Cleverly stitched." This real life tragedy comes complete with 40's era uniformed heroes, mink draped mobsters, red lipstick and white gloved ladies, and a universal Coming of Age message. Yet it's also just a simple story, with a timeless message that bears repeating.
Follow your heart. We'll meet again. Please remember me.
- Deborah Whitaker