It was the photograph that hooked Wendy Kail, a photo taken at Washington’s B.F. Keith’s Theatre on Dec. 25, 1917, and blown up to a 12-by-20-inch print.
It’s an interior shot, taken from the theater’s stage. It shows the thing that every actor — from high-class thespian to rude vaudevillian — loves most: a packed house. Nearly every audience member is in a military uniform. Ensconced in a box seat, stage left, behind a railing decorated in patriotic bunting, sits President Woodrow Wilson.
Wendy found the photo in the files of Tudor Place, the nearly 200-year-old Georgetown house where she is the archivist. Smitten, she decided to piece together its history.
This was easier than it might have been in other houses. Armistead Peter Jr., the wealthy scion who lived in the house at the time with his wife, Anna, and son, Armistead III, was a meticulous diary-writer and document-keeper. Wendy turned to his diary from 1917. “Rain and snow,” Armistead began in his distinctive hand. “This afternoon, Agnes and I went to Keith’s Theatre. . . . The house was packed with soldiers and sailors and it was a wonderful sight. The President and party occupied a box and he received a great ovation.”
Agnes was Agnes Peter, Armistead’s sister. Anna was home sick, which was a shame, as she had paid for the entire event.
Earlier that December, Anna had asked their banker, Corcoran Thom of the American Security and Trust Co., whether she could buy all the seats at Keith’s Theatre on Christmas Day and donate them to the YMCA to distribute to soldiers and sailors. The United States has been at war for eight months, and every day more U.S. servicemen were being shipped “over there.” Her own son was joining the Navy.
Wendy was able to find the actual check used to buy the entire house for the 5:15 p.m. show: $1,418.29, which included a “war tax” assessed on each of the 1,936 tickets.
It was a packed program that evening, beginning, as shows at the Keith’s always did, with a pipe organ recital and some orchestral music before the first of eight featured acts: Mankichi and Company, a parasol-, barrel- and top-spinning troupe from Japan. Next up were the Geralds, “Gypsy serenaders” who played 34 mandolins; a live comedy called “Hit the Trail”; and Dorothy Brenner, “the Lady Dainty of Songland.”
Just before intermission came what was billed as “a symbolic play of the times.” It was called “The Bonfire of Old Empires.” Perhaps that’s what the men in the audience figured they’d be witnessing in Europe.
The intermission featured two songs that illustrated without irony the jarring sentiments during the first Christmas after the U.S. entry into the Great War: “Holy Night,” followed by a song called “Giddap! Go On. We’re On Our Way to War.”
The post-intermission acts were the De Wolf Girls in a played called “Clothes, Clothes, Clothes,” Lester (“an unusual ventriloquist”), and impressions of great operatic artists by a group called Mme. Doree’s Celebrities, sort of the Cher and Rod Stewart lookalike act of their day.
The doughboys ate it all up. Noted the Keith’s Theatre newsletter: “To outsiders and passersby the cheering of the ‘high private in the rear rank’ sounded much as they have imagined it will when the ‘Sammies’ go ‘over the top,’ rat-hunting the Huns. Inside the theatre the noise of the acclamation was simply and absolutely deafening. Indeed, the fact that the event was altogether unanticipated by the boys in khaki seemed to add a thousand-fold to their lung power.”
After the final feature — a Hearst-Pathe newsreel — the men made their way through the snow and rain to wherever they were bivouacked: Fort Myer, Camp Meigs, the Navy Yard, Quantico, Walter Reed . . .
The last U.S. World War I soldier died in 2011. Keith’s Theatre is gone, too, though its facade remains, at 15th and F NW, now home to the Old Ebbitt Grill.
But Tudor Place is still here. It’s open to the public. World War I wasn’t the first war it’s seen and it probably won’t be the last.
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