Note: In the days that followed the collapse of the Knickerbocker Theater’s roof on January 28, 1922, the story of the theater’s orchestra was covered by the Washington Post, the Associated Press, the New York Times, and other news organizations. I have researched the newspaper archives and I have also included information and photos that were passed down through a Knickerbocker orchestra family, the Natiello family, to describe what happened to the musicians and composer on that snowy night 90 years ago. As with my first and second Knickerbocker stories, I follow the family after the disaster. Below is their story.
. . .
Snow had fallen for almost 24 hours and Ernesto Natiello, the conductor of the Knickerbocker Theater orchestra, was worried about the show that evening. It was Saturday, the Knickerbocker Theater’s biggest ticket day of the week, and it was not good timing for a snowstorm.
Read below for the rest of the story.
The date was January 28, 1922 and three months earlier Harry Crandall, the owner of the Knickerbocker Theater, had asked Ernesto Natiello to come to Washington to lead his theater’s orchestra.
Silent films were becoming increasingly popular with the public and theater owners such as Crandall found that the films were best accompanied by live music, to set the tempo for each scene.
The job of the theater conductor was to synchronize the orchestra’s music with the action of the film. It was not an easy task.
At the time, Ernesto Natiello was one of the top bandleaders in the country. He had headlined state fairs and performed in concerts that drew crowds of 10,000 people or more. Natiello and his band even appeared on a variety of postcards.
But despite Natiello’s success, times were changing for musicians and conductors. Orchestra jobs in theaters were now the big draw. Silent movies were very popular and theaters provided musicians with steady, frequent work. And best of all, the musicians who played for a theater did not have to live on the road and tour distant cities. They could settle down and live near the theater.
Natiello realized that his future was working for a theater. The Knickerbocker Theater was the largest and most modern movie house in Washington, D.C. and the venue was worthy of his talent.
Natiello accepted Crandall’s offer and he moved to Washington with his wife, Mary. He also brought his brother, Oreste, a violinist and French horn player to join him in the orchestra. Ernesto Natiello would be the new conductor for the Knickerbocker Theater orchestra and his brother would play at his side.
The music in the video above was composed by Ernesto Natiello and is titled, “The Delmar Garden March.” The video is a silent newsreel that was produced after the Knickerbocker Disaster. Two months before the disaster, Ernesto Natiello composed “The Knickerbocker Theater March” which was dedicated to the owner of the Knickerbocker Theater, Harry Crandall.
Snow continued to fall heavily during the afternoon of January 28 and the conductor grew more worried. The depth of the snow exceeded two feet and most of the city’s streets were now blocked by snow. Not only would moviegoers have a difficult time traveling to the theater for the show but many of Ernesto’s musicians who lived outside of the city would be stranded at home.
Ernesto thought of his new first violinist, Joseph Beal. Joseph had just joined his orchestra the previous month.
Prior to joining the Knickerbocker Theater orchestra, Joseph had played for the U.S. Navy band and toured the country. He was an excellent musician.
Ernesto knew that Joseph lived less than a mile from the theater and could easily walk to the show. But, there was one problem.
Joseph Beal had just been married to his high school sweetheart, Margaret Denham, and they were in the fourth day of their honeymoon.
Was Joseph even home? If he was at home, would he be willing to help the orchestra by playing in the show that evening, during the middle of his honeymoon? Ernesto made a phone call.
Snow continued to fall later that evening as violinist Joseph Beal left his house for the Knickerbocker Theater. He was indeed home and he did agree to play with the orchestra that evening.
It is not known how Joseph’s bride felt about him working on the fourth day of their honeymoon but she chose to stay at home and not watch him play. On the first Saturday evening of their marriage, Joseph walked alone to the Knickerbocker Theater.
The orchestra members assembled in front of the Knickerbocker Theater’s stage. Altogether, they numbered 11 musicians. Seven of their 18 members could not make it to the theater because of the storm.
Joseph Beal and Oreste Natiello stood side-by-side with their violins. Ernesto Natiello stood in the middle with his baton. The orchestra would play that evening missing a third of their musicians. It was not optimal, but they could make it work. The show would go on.
Ernesto’s wife, Mary, arrived at the theater before showtime. She loved to watch her husband conduct the orchestra.
On that particular evening, Mary brought the 9 year-old son of a very good friend, Anna Dauber, to see the movies. Mary and the young boy named Vincent took a seat next to one another in the center of the theater.
Retired West Virginia coal miner, William Morris, entered the Knickerbocker Theater. William was 63 years old and he had spent over 40 years of his life in a coal mine. He was in town and wanted to see a moving picture show.
William decided to sit in the front of the theater and he took his seat in the eighth row. He noticed that he had an entire row of seats to himself, the theater was only half-full due to the snowstorm.
The time approached 9 p.m. and the second movie of the night, “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford,” started to roll. The orchestra struck up a lively tune to accompany the first scene in the movie. The film was a comedy and it quickly produced laughs in the audience.
Suddenly, William heard a noise above him that he later described as breaking slate or the ripping of a sheet. Instinctively, William’s eyes looked up at the ceiling as he jumped to his feet. Having spent most of his life in a coal mine he had tuned his ears to notice certain sounds from above.
William quickly shuffled down the empty row toward the aisle. Still looking up, he noticed that a crack in the ceiling had formed above the orchestra which spewed a cloud of white plaster dust. The conductor’s baton was “waving with the music” as the cloud of dust slowly spread out and descended upon the orchestra.
William reached the end of the row, turned, and ran up the aisle as fast as he could. In his mind he had one thought, “I can beat that fall to the outside.” No-one else around him moved, everyone remained seated while William ran up the aisle to the back of the theater.
Plaster chunks began to fall from the ceiling as the coal miner reached the theater’s doorway to the lobby. Suddenly, the entire roof of the theater, weighed down by more than two feet of snow, crashed down to the theater floor.
As the roof fell, William said a “wave of wind” blew him out through the door, across the lobby, and onto the sidewalk outside. William was unharmed.
Inside the theater, the collapse of the roof was deadly. The conductor of the orchestra, Ernesto Natiello, was killed instantly. Joseph Beal, the first violinist who was on the fourth day of his honeymoon, was also killed. Ernesto’s wife, Mary, was buried up to her neck in debris. She was injured, but not severely.
Vincent, the 9 year-old boy that Mary brought to the theater, was completely buried under concrete and plaster. He had fatal injuries and would die later that night at Garfield Hospital.
Oreste, the brother of the conductor, was hit on his right side of his body by a steel beam and was injured severely, but not fatally. Six of the 11 men in the orchestra were killed by the collapse of the roof that night.
Oreste was rushed to Emergency Hospital on New York Avenue. Immediately, a doctor examined his injuries. The violinist pleaded, “Don’t take my arm off, doctor. It’s all I have to make a living with.”
The doctor looked down at Oreste’s right side. Despite the musician’s impassioned plea, there was no arm to save. It was completely missing. Oreste’s right arm was still back in the Knickerbocker Theater. A steel beam had pinched it off at the shoulder and closed the arteries. There was only a small piece of bone that needed to be clipped.
Oreste was seriously injured, but he would recover. The doctor chose not to tell him about his missing arm or about the death of his brother until the next day.
Unfortunately, the medical team at the hospital made one mistake with Oreste that night. They labeled him with the name of his brother, Ernesto. The Natiello brother’s names were swapped.
Washington was bustling with activity on the day following the disaster. It was Sunday and it seemed that everyone in the city wanted to walk down to the Knickerbocker Theater to check out the rescue effort that continued under the leadership of the US military.
Police lines surrounded the theater as thousands of on-lookers stopped to watch the activity, to discuss the disaster, and to recount what they were doing when the roof collapsed.
Newspaper reporters also descended upon the theater. They reported on every aspect of the disaster, but they particularly focused on the personal stories of the Knickerbocker victims, including the orchestra.
The quick-thinking coal miner, William Morris, was the focus of an Associated Press article titled, “Saved by Miner’s Instinct.” Morris’ final comment printed in the article stated, “I can’t forget that orchestra leader with that cloud forming just above his head."
Ernesto’s wife, Mary, was recovering at home when she heard the news that her husband, the conductor, was alive at Emergency Hospital. Despite her injuries and the trauma of seeing her friend’s young son killed by her side, she insisted upon leaving the house immediately to visit her husband in the hospital. Just to see Ernesto would bring relief.
Mary traveled two miles across the city to reach the hospital. With the treacherous road conditions, it's possible that she walked much of the distance.
Moments after Mary arrived at Emergency Hospital, she learned that there had been a mistake. The man in the hospital bed in front of her was not her husband, Ernesto. Instead, she found his brother, Oreste, in bed recovering. She learned that their names had been swapped and her husband was dead.
Mary collapsed to the floor of the hospital. The Washington Herald covered the story and wrote, “There she learned the cruel truth. Her brother-in-law, who is unmarried, was in the hospital, but her husband was in the improvised morgue at the church. She was shocked to prostration.”
Joseph Beal’s wife, Margaret, was inconsolable after learning the news of her husband’s death. Their marriage had lasted only four days. Joseph had died during their honeymoon and she had let him go to the theater alone that night. Margaret was described by the New York Times to be “in a serious condition.”
The date was February 4, 1922 and it had been six days since the Knickerbocker Theater’s roof collapsed. The family of violinist Joseph Beal was at Arlington National Cemetery for a military burial service for their son.
Joseph’s father, Ben, was a violinist earlier in his life but he lost an arm in an accident as a young man. Since he could never play the violin after the accident, Ben devoted much of his time to raising his son and teaching him music.
Joseph had made him very proud with his accomplishments in the Navy Band and his entry into the Knickerbocker Theater orchestra. Joseph’s future had been very promising. But now his son was gone and tears streamed down Ben’s face.
Two years passed and it was January 1924. Oreste Natiello had recovered from his injuries and he had moved back to Louisville, Kentucky where he and Ernesto had once performed with their band.
At the end of the month, on January 26, 1924, a group of vaudeville entertainers held a show in Louisville, Kentucky called the Natiello Benefit Performance. The goal of the show was to raise money to help Oreste become financially established within the community so he could start a new life without his violin.
Over 2,000 people attended the event and watched 18 acts of comedy, music, dance, and drama. A large sum of money was raised for Oreste that night.
The next day, the Louisville Times described the benefit with a line, “A vision of a violinist, who at one time made his living in the theater, but whom the theater maimed for life, forcing him to throw away his violin.” The article continued to say, “The entertainers gave their time and talent for Oreste Natiello, one of their own.”
In Louisville, Oreste did start a new life. He found a job as a doorman and he had his first child, a son he named Oreste “George” Natiello, Jr.
Almost 20 years passed and the date was February 1, 1943. On that day, nine B-17 bombers took off from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. The bombardier of one of the B-17s was Oreste’s son, George, who had already flown 54 missions over the Pacific.
The B-17 bomber manned by Natiello was named the “Yokohama Express.” It was part of a bombing strike targeting Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. The goal of the mission was to disrupt Japanese shipping in the area.
The nine planes split into two elements. The first element of five bombers found their target, a cargo ship, and they scored three direct hits with their bombs and all planes returned safely to base.
The second element of four bombers, including Natiello’s B-17, targeted another cargo ship.
When the planes approached the ship, the four B-17s encountered heavy antiaircraft fire. One of the planes was hit by a shell and exploded in mid-air.
The three remaining bombers, including Natiello’s B-17, found their ship and scored two direct hits.
As the three B-17s turned back to Henderson Field, they were attacked by a group of 20 Japanese Zeros.
In the ensuing air battle, Natiello’s B-17 was shot repeatedly and was forced to make a water landing. The other two B-17s were also shot down.
Of the four crews that composed the second element of the attack that day, there were only two survivors. The entire crew of Natiello’s Yokohama Express was missing. George was reported MIA to Oreste and his family.
Over a year passed since George’s B-17 crash landed in the Pacific Ocean and it was June 16, 1943. Colonel William Morgan, commanding officer of the Philadelphia Air Defense Wing, presented Orteste Natiello with an air medal and oak leaf cluster for his son’s service in the Solomons. George was still missing and presumed dead. Oreste accepted the award on his son’s behalf.
George’s medal was pinned on Orteste’s coat as the crowd cheered. Orteste, who had been unable to play the violin after he lost his arm, devoted much of his time to raising his son. George had made him very proud with his military accomplishments. But now his son was gone and tears streamed down Oreste’s face.
My research effort:
This story found me. Soon after my CWG post appeared on the Knickerbocker Snowstorm, I was contacted by Nick Barkas. Nick is the grandson of Oreste Natiello and he is also their family historian.
Nick had a wealth of information about the Knickerbocker Theater orchestra and the Natiello family. In a matter of days, my email inbox was overflowing with photos, articles, and stories.
In addition to Nick’s stories, I began researching newspaper articles in the archives for information about the Knickerbocker orchestra. I found numerous articles with short stories and quotes, but no comprehensive story.
The Washington Post ran the story about Ernesto, Oreste, and Mary in the theater, describing how they were crushed by the roof. The Post also included the story of Oreste at the hospital, including his quote to the doctor. The Washington Post and New York Times both ran similar stories about Joseph Beal and his wife, Margaret. The Washington Herald ran the story about Mary finding Oreste in the hospital instead of her husband. The New York Times ran the AP story about the coal miner, William Morris, and his escape from the theater.
Regarding the distances that Joseph and Mary had to travel to the theater and to the hospital, the newspaper articles printed their home addresses. I then used Mapquest to plot the distances.
With Nick’s additional family data and photos added to all of the various story segments from the newspaper articles, I was able to put together a story of the Knickerbocker Theater orchestra and the Natiello family.
In one of Nick’s last emails to me, he mentioned that the tragedies had made a lasting impact on his family. I found that easy to understand.
In late October, I went to Arlington Cemetery to photograph the grave site of the Joseph Beal, the first violinist who was killed in the Knickerbocker disaster. I thought that a modern-day photo of his grave stone would put a finishing touch on this story.
It was a moving visit, particularly after reading the accounts Joseph and his bride, and seeing the photo of his burial service in the snow taken in Arlington over 90 years earlier. I even wondered how many times Margaret visited the grave site.
As I was finishing this article, I received an email from Frank Lyman who played a part in my first Knickerbocker story. Frank said he worked with a relative of the Natiello family at the University of Maryland and the story of the orchestra might make for an interesting Knickerbocker story.
I was surprised to receive Frank’s email. Two different Knickerbocker family members working together, by coincidence.
I agreed with Frank and I wrote back that my orchestra story was already underway. I then thought, what a small world, or at least, what a small Washington region.
Thanks to Nick Barkas and Debbie Chambers who assisted with this effort.
Editor’s note: Kevin Ambrose, who wrote this post, is the author of the book: The Knickerbocker Snowstorm (Images of America), published January 14, 2013.