The bare facts are shocking enough, but they do not mention the most shocking fact. How they could forget to mention the death of a real cowboy star is a mystery on top of a mystery – yet if he had not died in this tragedy, new safety laws and regulations might never have been passed.
The facts, ma'am, just the facts:
“A fire killed 492 people at Boston's Cocoanut Grove club in 1942, the deadliest nightclub blaze in U.S. history. The fire led to the enactment of requirements for sprinkler systems and accessible exits with emergency lights not linked to the regular lighting system.”
The B-Westerns website adds that, “But before DAWN ON THE GREAT DIVIDE was released, [Buck] Jones died from injuries received in the November 28, 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston, which killed nearly 500 people. The badly burned western film star was rushed to the Massachusetts General Hospital but passed away on November 30, 1942. Consensus is that he was in Boston to promote his Monogram films, or do some War Bond work, or do a little of both. Dunlap was also seriously injured in the fire, but did recover. Jones' remains were cremated.”
Wiki says that Scott R. Dunlap, Jones' business manager, threw a party in Jones' honor at the Cocoanut Grove that fateful night. Jones reportedly had a cold (Thomas, Jack, The Cocoanut Grove inferno) and did not want to come that night, but he did and he did not survive the fire.
An image of the actual newspaper clipping shouts the facts known at the time of the tragedy.
“BUCK JONES IS DEAD OF INJURIES IN FIRE. Cowboy Movie Star Succumbs Along With Most of Those at Party in His Honor. WIFE TOO LATE TO SEE HIM. Actor, 53, Was in the Films for Twenty Years – He Served in France in the World War.
BOSTON, Nov. 30 (U.P.)---Charles (Buck) Jones, cowboy motion picture star, died at a hospital late today of burns suffered in the Cocoanut Grove fire. Mr. Jones was the guest of honor at a party when the fire broke out. Attending physicians said they “had abandoned all hope for Jones' recovery immediately after examining his burns.”
Mr. Jones, a 53-year-old native of Vincennes, Ind., and a long-time favorite of American boy movie fans, was the 181st person to die in the disaster.
A check-up showed that of about two dozen guests at the Jones testimonial dinner, thirteen were known dead, seven, mostly women, were recorded as missing and presumably dead, and the others were in hospitals with burns or injuries which may prove fatal.
Wife on Her Way to Him
The doctors reported that Mr. Jones died “from smoke inhalation and burned lungs, and from third and second degree burns on the face and neck.”
Idol of millions of movie fans, Mr. Jones died alone, although his wife was reported speeding to his bedside when death came.
In another ward of the crowded Massachusetts General Hospital, Mr. Jones's Boston representative, Martin Sheridan, lay in critical condition. Mr. Sheridan's wife, who also attended the Jones party, was dead.
Scott R. Dunlap, one of Hollywood's leading producers of Westerns and Mr. Jones's personal manager, was near death late today.
Other guests at the Jones party who perished included Edward A. Anson, president of the Interstate Theatres Corporation, which operates a New England movie chain; Philip Seletsky, chief film booker for the M. & P. Theatres of Boston; Charles Sterns, manager of United Artists Corporation; Fred P. Sharby Sr. and his son, Fred, Jr., showmen of Keene, N.H. (B-Westerns.com, page 15 of article on Buck Jones)--- (and others. Clipping is cut off at this point.)
There were many causes of the fire, among them simple overcrowding. But more serious problems are listed in the Boston.com article: “With 1,000 patrons, the club was 25 percent beyond capacity. Busboys were under legal age. A firefighter said he had inspected the club eight days before and found everything satisfactory. And yet, not only were decorations not fireproof, they were highly inflammable. The electrician who wired the Cocoanut Grove had no license, and he testified that the owner, Barney Welansky, had told him not to worry, that Welansky was "in with the mayor." Taxes had been cut mysteriously from $18,000 to $9,000. Not only did a revolving door become jammed, but other exits were locked, trapping scores of screaming victims. A plate-glass window that would have provided egress for 200 people was boarded up.”
Buck Jones was believed at first to have lost his life rescuing other patrons, a claim that is repeated in Quinlan's Illustrated Directory of Film Stars. But now it seems that was mere Hollywood publicity meant to burnish a star that already burned brightly. Jones was unusual in a couple of ways. One, he was one of the few real cowboys who portrayed one on the silver screen. He worked as cowhand on Red Rock Indian territory in Oklahoma (near Bliss, OK), learning skills that came in handy when playing cowboys for fun in the movies.
When his young wife became pregnant, he decided to seek work in films. He got a job paying $5 a day as a bit player and stuntman in the 1920s. From 1937 to his death, he was not out of the top ten movie cowboys in terms of box-office appeal (B-Westerns.com). He also spent some years in rodeo shows, and tried to make a go of it starring in his own rodeo circus company. He was fortunate that his comfortable baritone transferred well from his silent movie days to the new era of sound.
The loss of a beloved cowboy star surely hit many young boys right where it hurts.
1- Downey, Ron?, Buck Jones --- Some Personal Thoughts, B-Westerns.com, http://www.b-westerns.com/buck5.htm
2- IMDB.com, Buck Jones, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0427659/bio
3- Magers, Boyd, Cocoanut Grove Controversy, B-Westerns.com, http://www.b-westerns.com/terms15.htm
4- Quinlan, David, Quinlan's Illustrated Directory of Film Stars, Hippocrene Books, Inc., New York, 1986, ISBN 0870523465.
5- Thomas, Jack, The Cocoanut Grove inferno, 11-22-1992 the fiftieth anniversary of the blaze, Boston.com, http://www.boston.com/news/daily/21/archives_cocoanut_112292.htm