Sunday, November 4, 2007
The Ambassador Theater and How It Rocked DC
The southeast corner of 18th and Columbia in the heart of Adams Morgan may well be haunted. The doomed Knickerbocker Theater stood here until 1922, the roof collapsed under the weight of snows from a two day blizzard. Ninety eight people who were watching a silent movie were killed-and many more badly injured. In 1923, the theater was rebuilt and opened as the Ambassador. In 1927, when my mother was about nine years old, she remembers walking with her Dad from their home on Mozart Place to see "a talkie" there featuring Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.
Flash forward forty years to the summer of 1967. The Ambassador stands shuttered and seemingly abandoned, but one more transformation is about to take place- this time as a home to the exploding scene of rock and roll. I, unfortunately, was only about eight years old at the time, but this past weekend, yet another forty years forward, I was invited to attend a very cool Ambassador Theater reunion engineered by local film maker Jeff Krulik- a stalwart keeper of D.C.' s rock history flame.
At the reunion, we met the people responsible for the scene: Tony Finestra, Court Rodgers and Joel Mednick. Back in 1967, they were young hippie types selling fire extinguishers of all things when they heard about the Summer of Love in San Francisco. Like so many kids that year, they answered that siren song and went to see for themselves what was happening out West. But unlike other kids, these guys returned to D.C. inspired and determined to make the music happen here. In a very short time, they rented the down trodden Ambassador and removed the 1500 seats to create their own psychedelic dance hall. Their new pals, The Grateful Dead, were booked and ready to play. Unfortunately, our city government, not thrilled with hippies and the like, fought the project every step of the way. The Dead's equipment arrived, but the city pulled their permit at the last minute, and the show was cancelled. Not to be deterred, our heroes fought city hall and finally did open on July 28, 1967 with local band Natty Bumpo and headliner The Peanut Butter Conspiracy.
The Ambassador, which was a huge space, became the new haven for freaks and happening people. The Psychedelic Power and Light Company took over the balcony and used multiple projectors and black lights to splash the walls with colors and images. This became a stand alone show of its own with tickets priced at $1.50 on week nights, $2.50 on weekends.
The mezzanine level boasted a head shop selling lava lamps, posters and well, you know, hippie stuff. The concert hall sometimes functioned as a community center reaching out to neighborhood kids for special matinees and later became a staging area for the anti war march on the Pentagon with Norman Mailer.
Loads of headliners came through as well as local bands. Canned Heat, Moby Grape, John Lee Hooker, Vanilla Fudge, The Fugs, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and more all appeared at the Ambassador. Our own Joe Dolan of The Beatnik Flies mopped the floors there. His cousin, Patty Ferry made this very cool hoe-down poster.
Jimi Hendrix, only 24 at the time, had been touring with The Monkees that summer, but his style somehow didn't mesh with the kids who came to see those goofy lads. Jimi's manager called our heroes at the Ambassador, and they booked this relatively unknown guitar player for five nights. John Entwistle and Pete Townsend came to the finale show when Hendrix set his guitar on fire. (I'm not making this stuff up- ask Nils Lofgren.) For reverse sticker shock- please note the ticket price on the poster below.
Sadly this amazing effort only lasted about six months- partly due to bad publicity and partly because of the atmosphere of those anti-long hair times when civil unrest was rumbling through the land. The neighborhood didn't want "commies" and hippies hanging around. At the reunion, stories were told about police who gave out tickets to legally parked theater goers. The cops also waited outside to arrest kids who had violated the D.C. curfew and to scare others back to the suburbs.
Sadder still the theater was torn down not too long after the closing. A bank surrounded by a vapid and non descript plaza stands there now where, once upon a time, dreams (and snowy nightmares) came true.