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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. This is where the doomed Knickerbocker Theater once stood. In 1922, while a silent movie was showing,  the roof collapsed under the weight of snows from a two day blizzard.  Ninety eight people 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 three young guys who were selling fire extinguishers of all things when they first heard about the Summer of Love in San Francisco. Like so many kids that year, Tony Finestra, Court Rodgers and Joel Medick answered that siren song and piled in a car to see what was going on 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 a concert 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 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 new Ambassador wasn't just about the music. The mezzanine level boasted a head shop selling lava lamps, posters and well, you know, hippie stuff.  The concert hall also tried to function as a community center reaching out to neighborhood kids for special matinees and became a staging area for the anti war march on the Pentagon with Norman Mailer.

And then came Jimi.

Jimi Hendrix had been touring with The Monkees, but his style didn't quite fit that double bill. His manager called our heroes at the Ambassador, and they booked this relatively unknown guitar player for five nights. Natty Bumpo opened, and Pete Townsend came to one of the shows. (I'm not making this stuff up- ask Nils Lofgren.)

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.

Sadly this amazing effort only lasted about six months- partly due to bad publicity and partly just the atmosphere of the times. (Even I remember how threatened people were by the hippie thing.) 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 scared 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 nightmares) came true.


  1. excellent. informative. mkes me wish i was around here back then

  2. I remember seeing Hendrix there, really before anyone knowing him. Also remember the Fugs playing there, down from New York for a peace March. They used to give out free mini posters - I had the Hendrix poster on my wall for many years till it fell apart. Wish I had saved some of those artifacts. Those were great days in D.C.

  3. Summer of '67...just turned 15...wanted to embrace Hippiedom, but how? Bribed my car-enabled older step-bro to go see Ravi Shankar at Constitution Hall, rode into DC but the Ravi show was sold out. Ambassador was the next choice, featuring The Strawberry Alarm Clock and a local DC band that featured 2 drummers, with 2 full drum kits...paid our $2.50 and walked in and...yikes...nicest people i had ever encountered, wildest place i had ever seen, with black lights, clouds of burning incense, black lights, throbbingly organic light show and...more black lights!...the Ambassador provided day-glo paint to patrons and encouraged everyone to enhance the black light experience on the walls, floors, one another...they also had a "Love Box", which you peered into, pressed a button and...ZAP!, a zillion watt lightbulb went off with the word "LOVE" stenciled on it and, for quite a while after, everything you looked at had "LOVE" superimposed on it...The Ambassador ruined me for life as a mindless inhabitant of the normal, for which i am eternally grateful...

  4. Thanks so much for posting this, incredible history right in our own stomping grounds... what I wouldn't give now to have been there...