Published on November 1, 2019.

The Grove, Revisited 

77 years later, a new film documents the world's deadliest nightclub fire


Tucked away on a narrow, cobblestoned street in Boston’s Bay Village neighborhood, the Cocoanut Grove was a swank, South Seas tropics–themed nightclub, popular with socialites and soldiers alike. Seventy-seven years ago in November, it also became the site of the world’s deadliest nightclub fire, killing nearly 500 people who were unable to escape through hidden and locked exits.

A new documentary film, “Six Locked Doors: The Legacy of Cocoanut Grove,” makes sure we don’t forget. Directed by Boston native Zachary Graves-Miller, the film examines the conditions, from corruption to code violations, that led to the fire’s monumental death toll, as well as how the fire spurred revolutionary changes in medicine and fire and life safety codes.

In October, I attended a screening of the 70-minute film at a historic theater in the neighboring community of Brookline, about three miles from the site where the Cocoanut Grove once stood. The film recounts how, on the evening of Saturday, November 28, 1942—following a shocking upset win by Holy Cross over Boston College in an afternoon football game at nearby Fenway Park—the club was packed with revelers, including Holy Cross fans, servicemen on holiday leave, and hundreds more. The club was reportedly filled with more than 1,000 patrons—over double its capacity—when a fire broke out in a basement lounge.

“Six Locked Doors” is largely carried by the powerful stories of five survivors, including one who climbed through an air duct to escape, and another who escaped via the roof of the building. It leaves viewers with two important messages: never forget historic tragedies like Cocoanut Grove, and don’t become complacent about fire safety, even in your own home—a lesson that was especially meaningful on the night of the screening, which marked the start of NFPA’s Fire Prevention Week.

Although it’s been almost eight decades since the legendary blaze, the fire is far from forgotten in New England’s largest city. As the lights came up at the film’s close, it was clear that “Six Locked Doors” had resonated with the audience of 150, which broke out in raucous applause. Some wiped tears from their eyes.

The film was the culmination of roughly five years of work for Graves-Miller, who grew up just steps from the site of the Cocoanut Grove. In 2013, he attended the renaming of Shawmut Street Extension, where Cocoanut Grove had been located, to Cocoanut Grove Lane as part of the fire’s 71st anniversary recognition. He brought his camera and, coincidentally, met two survivors of the fire. “It was then that I knew I had to keep filming,” Graves-Miller told NFPA Journal. The five-year filmmaking journey took Graves-Miller and his team to many locations in and around Boston, including NFPA headquarters.

For more information on the film, including upcoming screenings, visit

ANGELO VERZONI is a staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Gabe Hurwitz, David Blaney, and Zachary Graves-Miller/Six Locked Doors Productions