In every city, nothing is new. Everything is built on top of something else. Sometimes a dilapidated funeral home gets torn down for a music venue. Sometimes a bank is torn down to make way for a museum. In a city as densely populated and old as the District of Columbia, there are thousands of stories like this. To showcase these stories, Brightest Young Things presents “This Used to Be That.”
Harry Crandall built a theater.
Well, that’s not exactly true. Harry Crandall didn’t actually build the thing– he had a team of architects, engineers, plumbers, and construction workers build the thing for him. He also didn’t just build one theater; at the height of his career, he had about fifteen in the District. Most of these theaters have gone by the wayside. The Joy, the Savoy, and the York have all faded into memory. However, a few of Crandall’s establishments are still around in one form or another. The Tivoli and the Lincoln theaters are very much in operation, and without much change from the original designs. The Apollo’s current designs, however, have absolutely nothing to do with the former theater.
No theater in Crandall’s long career is as well-known as the Knickerbocker Theater. While it was his largest, and certainly one of the most ornate, it is most remembered for one of the District’s greatest tragedies. In January of 1922, a 28-hour blizzard hit the mid-Atlantic states. It moved north from Georgia, and spun several inches of snow, sleet, and freezing rain over the District. Much of this accumulated on the rooftops, including the vast, and extraordinarily flat roof of the Knickerbocker Theater.
On January 28, 1922, exactly 94 years ago, the roof caved.
All of the snow and ice (approximately 28 inches of snow, with three inches of melted precipitation) gathered on the roof became too much for the beams supporting the theater’s ceiling. Hundreds of people were trapped inside. 98 people were killed, either from the roof’s collapse, or from being trapped in the debris. The corner of 18th and Columbia, the very heart of Adams Morgan, became a disaster area. Police, firefighters, and citizens collaborated in a massive relief effort. The mayor’s office called for reinforcement from the US Army. Fort Meyer wasn’t far, and had men to spare. The Washington Herald wrote:
“Frantically working to dig the entombed victims from the twisted mass of steel, wood and concrete at the Knickerbocker tragedy, soldiers from Fort Myer worked until a late hour this morning with the hope of recovering the last of the bodies. One hundred and fifty soldiers are seen here, under the leadership of Maj. George Patton, of Fort Myer, Va., striving to move the heavy debris from the bodies.”
Reginald Wyckliffe Geare, the theater’s architect, killed himself shortly after. Harry Crandall also committed suicide ten years after the disaster. The blizzard would later be named the Knickerbocker Storm, and January 28, 1922 became the most fatal day in the District.
The address, however, had a curious second life. Thomas Lamb, Geare’s replacement, built a new theater in place of the Knickerbocker. Opened in 1923, the Ambassador Theater boasted 1,700 seats, and a massive screen. Crandall sold the majority of the shares of his company to Warner Brothers in 1927, and the Ambassador operated under their control until the 1950’s.
The world was changing. Post World War II America saw the dawn of television, and at-home entertainment. Movie palaces began to decline, many of them either expanding into multi-plexes, or just closing altogether. The District has several examples of this, the most notable being the façade of the Penn Theater, just south of Capitol Hill. Along with several other theaters of its size, the Ambassador was on the verge of demolition by the end of the 1960
In June of 1967, three men decided to bring San Francisco’s “summer of love” vibe to D.C. Tony Finestra, Court Rodgers, and Joel Mednick found a way to book the Grateful Dead that summer (with the Doors as their opener), and use the Ambassador as the venue. They paid rent on the building, they ripped out the seats, and installed a new sound and light rig. Of course, every party has its obstacles. The mayor’s office pulled the permit days before the show, which began a tedious battle between the District government and The Psychedelic Power and Light Company.
Eventually, the city caved, and the trio were able to open their doors on July 28, 1967. Their first headliner? Peanut Butter Conspiracy. During the following months of the Light Company’s run, the Ambassador played host to dozens of musical acts. Canned Heat, Moby Grape, John Lee Hooker, Vanilla Fudge, The Fugs, and Paul Butterfield all paid a visit. The most famous story from that summer was the time Jimi Hendrix came to the District.
Hendrix was slated for a co-headlining tour of the United States with The Monkees (yes, you read that correctly). Somehow, despite the serious amount of drugs being thrown around the Hendrix camp, someone realized this was a bad idea. The Jimi Hendrix Experience pulled their slot off the tour, and went in search of something different. It’s worth noting here that 1967 saw the release of the Doors’ eponymous debut, Donovan’s Mellow Yellow, and Between the Buttons from the Rolling Stones… and that’s just the releases from January. This was a monumental year for rock and roll, and Hendrix had to work exceptionally hard in the US. He gained notoriety in the UK after a would-be row with Clapton, played in front of the Beatles on the release of Sgt. Pepper, played a blazing set at Monterey, and also put out his first album. Still, he was relatively unknown in the United States, at least until he set his guitar on fire at the Ambassador.
On Sunday, August 13th, 1967, at the end of a five-day residency at the Ambassador Theater, Jimi Hendrix asked Mike Schreibman to grab him some lighter fluid before the Experience’s set. This date is incredibly important to one District resident, DJ/Nationals Broadcaster Phil Wood, then 16-years-old. Wood and his friends went to see The Who open for Herman’s Hermits (again, yes, you read that correctly) at Constitution Hall. They saw The Who, left before the headliner, crossed over to 18th St., walked all the way North to the Ambassador, paid $2.50 (about $18 in 2016), and saw the show of a lifetime. Wood was next to Pete Townshend and John Entwhistle during the show.
And, at the conclusion of a ferocious set, with well under a thousand people in attendance, Jimi Hendrix set fire to his guitar and smashed it while it was still plugged in. While the crowd clamored for pieces of the instrument, Phil Wood reached across the stage, and grabbed the E string from the guitar’s carcass. He still has it in a petri dish on his desk.
The remains of the Ambassador were not as carefully preserved. The city pushed hard on the theater’s management, citing them multiple times for noise violations and teenage curfew violations. Despite how many of us maintain the popular images of the late 1960’s being a groovy time, rife with positive attitudes and love-ins, it was pretty tough being a hippie in those days. The city cracked down hard on the venue. By January 1968, the theater was closed for good. It was demolished on September 29th, 1969. In 1978, a bank plaza was built on the site of the theater, permanently pushing underground any memory of the theater, the movies, the snowstorm, the Ambassador, and Hendrix’s guitar-burning.
You can still walk through the alleyway, though. In between Julia’s Empanadas and the DCMPD’s Latino Liaison Unit, there’s a little stretch of sloping sidewalk, which used to be an alleyway behind the theater. Maybe Hendrix loaded in through that route?