Remembering Buck Jones and the Cocoanut Grove Fire of 1942

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Today is Buck Jones’ birthday (b. Dec. 12th 1891) and although his name might not be familiar to modern movie audiences the much loved B-movie cowboy was once one of the most popular western stars in Hollywood. Jones began his career in silent films and successfully transferred to making talkies while working with some interesting talent including directors John Ford, William Wellman, W. S. Van Dyke, James W. Horne, Lambert Hillyer and Kurt Neumann and fellow actors such as John Wayne, Carol Lombard, Tom Mix, Gabby Hayes, Lon Chaney Jr., Susan Fleming, Anita Louise and Buster Crabbe (just to name a few). At the height of his fame (roughly between 1925 and 1938) Jones was making 6-8 films a year and his likeness, along with his white horse called Silver, could be found in comic books and on advertisements for many products that appealed to kids including Schwinn bicycles, Post breakfast cereals, Royal Crown Cola and Daisy air guns. His fan club, affectionately known as The Buck Jones Rangers, boasted over three million members and at one point in his career Jones was one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood and supposedly received more fan mail than any star.

Jones learned to ride horses while serving in the United States Cavalry and when WW1 ended he found work in Wild West shows and circuses where he would perform riding stunts. While working in the Ringling Brothers Circus with his wife (and fellow stunt rider) Odille Osborne, he ended up in Los Angeles and decided to leave the circus to pursue a career in Hollywood westerns. His first jobs were with Universal Pictures and the Fox Film Corporation (aka 20th Century Fox) where he worked as an extra and a stunt double for high-profile cowboy stars like Tom Mix. His riding abilities as well as his natural good looks, charisma and sense of humor eventually got him noticed by Fox film founder William Fox. Jones’ first starring role was in THE LAST STRAW (1920) and throughout the twenties he appeared in a number of successful westerns for Fox where he became one of Hollywood’s most recognized western heroes.

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In 1928 Buck Jones decided to leave Fox and start his own production company but this would prove detrimental to his career. The talkies were replacing silent films and like many actors, Jones had some trouble adjusting to these changes. His first self-produced western was called THE BIG BOP (1928) and it struggled to find an audience. Soon afterward Jones lost a substantial amount of his earnings in the great Wall Street crash of 1929, which hurt him professionally as well as personally. But you can’t keep a good cowboy down and Jones finally recovered by starting up his own Wild West show and eventually finding steady work again with Columbia and Universal Pictures in a string of popular B-westerns.

The 1930s was a productive time for Buck Jones but by the end of the decade he had become frustrated by the direction his beloved westerns were taking. He apparently didn’t appreciate the popular phenomenon of the “singing cowboy” that made big stars out of entertainers such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. He also wasn’t getting any younger and didn’t feel particularly comfortable in the role of  leading man or romantic hero any more. But just when it seemed as if Jones’ career was on an irreversible decline he got a starring role in WHITE EAGLE (1941), which proved to be a highly successful serial western for Columbia Pictures. The popularity of WHITE EAGLE caught the attention of one of Jones’ old friends, Scott E. Dunlap who had recently become the Vice President in Charge of Production at Monogram Pictures. Dunlap and executives at Monogram came up with the idea to start a new western serial starring Buck Jones along with Raymond Hatton and Tim McCoy. This popular western trio was called The Rough Riders and together they made nine successful low-budget episodic westerns for Monogram before the disastrous fire at Boston’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub ended Jones’ career prematurely.

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Like many Americans, Buck Jones supported the war effort in WW2 and he was on a War Bond selling tour organized by his publicist, Martin Sheridan, when he found himself in Boston on November 28th. Jones loved entertaining kids and meeting his young fans so he spent the day at a local children’s hospital before making a widely publicized appearance at a war rally held in the Boston Garden. After the rally Jones joined the Mayor of Boston to watch a football game and that evening he was the guest of honor at a testimonial dinner held at the Cocoanut Grove. The dinner was planned by Jones’ longtime friend and business partner, Scott R. Dunlap. Dunlap invited a prestigious group of studio executives along with local theater owners to join them in celebrating Buck Jones’ career comeback while stirring up some publicity for Monogram Pictures. Sadly, the dinner party came to a sudden and tragic end when a fire quickly swept through the club killing nearly 500 people. Although questions remain about the cause, the fire was apparently started by a 16-year-old bus boy while he was attempting to change a light bulb but the flimsy paper decorations and inadequate emergency exists only exacerbated the horrible event.

Out of the 25-30 guests who were part of Buck Jones’ party only half of them survived the fire. The dead included Edwin Ansin (President of Interstate Theaters), Harry Asher (President of Producers Releasing Corporation), Paul Barron (Universal Pictures Branch Manager), Moe Grassgreen (Universal Pictures Executive), Eugene Gross (Monogram Films Salesman), Bernard Levin (Columbia Pictures Executive), Philip Seletsky (Chief Buyer for M & P Theaters), Fred P. Sharby and his son Fred Jr. (Local Theater Owners), Constance Sheridan (Wife of Martin Sheridan; Jones’ Publicity Agent), O. A. St. Pierre (Director of M & P Theater’s Art Department), Charles Stern (New England Branch Manager for United Artists), Lawrence Stone (Monogram Pictures Booking Agent) and Buck Jones himself. The rest of the party guests suffered serious injuries.

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The event made international news and along with the hundreds of people who lost family members and friends in the fire, millions of fans were left mourning their film hero, Buck Jones. It’s not too surprising that after the dust from the fire settled Jones’ friends tried to comfort a lot of his young fans by suggesting that the western star had acted heroically during the fire and saved the lives of some Cocoanut Grove survivors. The sad truth is that Jones was trapped at his table and although he survived until rescuers found him and managed to get him to a nearby medical facility, he succumbed to the flames and smoke before he could help anyone. Whether or not you believe the stories about Buck Jones heroics, the truth is that he become an ageless celluloid hero who was taken from us much too early at the age of 53. Many western stars transitioned gracefully into older character driven roles and I think Buck Jones could have had a long career in Hollywood if he had survived the Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942.

Further reading:
The Old Corral – B-Westerns.org
The Cocoanut Grove Coalition
- Fire in the Grove: The Cocoanut Grove Tragedy and Its Aftermath by John C. Esposito

8 Responses Remembering Buck Jones and the Cocoanut Grove Fire of 1942
Posted By robbushblog : December 12, 2013 9:50 pm

I had heard of the fire before, and vaguely remembered that Buck Jones had died in it, but I did not know the incredible death toll or the event that brought all of those people together. Thank you for this very interesting historical information.

Posted By MedusaMorlock : December 12, 2013 10:44 pm

Great and disturbing post, Kimberly!

I’ve always been fascinated by disasters and this is one of those probably preventable ones — but perhaps all disasters are fated to occur, seems that way sometimes — and so horrifying.

What a way to go, as they say…

Your post is a wonderful remembrance of a much-loved performer who definitely had his future cut short by this tragic event.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : December 13, 2013 1:17 am

this happened a few miles from where i grew up, my parents were in their teens, it did force some changes in the building codes,but when you have unscrupulous owners,like the Station night club in Rhode Island a little more than 50 years afterwards,there’s always a way to skirt the law…the Cocoanut Grove tragedy is something that haunts the city to this day,but don’t scapegoat the busboy ,all the exits in the building were locked, to keep people from sneaking in

Posted By Doug : December 13, 2013 6:01 pm

The first thing that came to mind for me was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911-it is a tragedy when any group dies needlessly.
We are coming up on the ninth anniversary of the “Christmas tsunami”-here’s a note:
“Despite a lag of up to several hours between the earthquake and the impact of the tsunami, nearly all of the victims were taken completely by surprise because there were no tsunami warning systems in the Indian Ocean to detect tsunamis or to warn the general populace living around the ocean.”
155,000 dead, 500,000 injured, and the numbers could have been much smaller if there had been proper warning.
It was indeed sad that Buck Jones and so many others died in Boston; it was sad that Will Rogers, another trick rider/roper movie star had his life cut short in 1935.
I guess the best we can do is cherish life and remember those who have passed on.

Posted By Jenni : December 13, 2013 6:19 pm

Interesting post and so sad. Wow,that was a large number of people to have died in that fire. As Doug said above, cherish life and remember those who have passed on.

Posted By Richard Brandt : December 16, 2013 4:07 pm

As I recall, Bill Cosby was a big fan of Buck Jones. That fire was certainly a tragedy; half the management of Hollywood’s Poverty Row wiped out in one night, just for starters.

Posted By swac44 : December 16, 2013 8:37 pm

I’ve only seen one of Buck’s films, from his silent film prime, but he certainly had a lot of charisma as well as a great physicality developed in his trick-riding days. It’s a shame he didn’t get the chance to live and work until a ripe old age.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : December 19, 2013 11:11 pm

Thanks for all the feedback and I’m glad people appreciated my brief look at Buck’s career. He’s an interesting character and I’ve only just begun to dive into his filmography myself. Thankfully Amazon streaming has a fair amount of his movies available and occasionally you can find them on Youtube.

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