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D.C. snowfall triggers memories of 1922 collapse of theater's roof

After two recent snowstorms closed the federal government and schools across the region, people began digging out. The season's snow tally in D.C. reached 55.6 inches Wednesday -- more than the last record of 54.4 inches, set in 1898-99.

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By Neely Tucker and David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010

It was in late January 1922, during an era in which rescue workers would give accident victims a shot of brandy, when the snow fell at a record pace and the roof of Washington's grandest theater, the Knickerbocker, collapsed.

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The roof, covered with 28 inches on Jan. 28, pressed down on a faulty truss. One edge of the truss slipped off the wall and fell onto the crowd of 300 Saturday night filmgoers below. Then the entire roof -- girders, beam, trusses, concrete -- collapsed like a sheet cake.

"After I fell quite a way the floor of the balcony seemed to open from under me and then I dropped through with nothing under me," survivor George Brodie wrote to his sister a few days later. "The screams around me woke me up. . . . I was practically buried under plaster and pieces of the chairs. Everything was pitch dark and as soon as I could I squirmed around and crawled out into a place that reminded me of a cave."

When the last corpse was pulled from the ruins at the southwest corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW, 98 people were dead and 133 were seriously injured.

Now, 88 years later, with perhaps another record-breaking snowfall settling over the nation's capital, the Knickerbocker Blizzard remains both the area's greatest snowfall and one of the most deadly incidents in the city's history. For some, it retains a hold on the memory, a sepia-toned newsreel of What We Were Like Then. The National Weather Service's map of that morning, with the massive storm spreading from the Appalachian Mountains to New England, now resides in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's rare-book room in Silver Spring.

"I think about it, because I know the history," says Jeff Krulik, the local filmmaker who made a documentary about local theaters called "Twenty-Five Cents Before Noon." He posted original footage of the disaster scene on his YouTube channel, the police in their long coats tramping through the debris, the men in fedoras, the Model T's clogging the street.

"Many long-term Washingtonians will have relatives or family who were connected to that disaster, people who knew people who decided not to go that night, or decided to go and tried to escape," Krulik said.

In Hyattsville on Friday morning, before the snow started falling, Robert K. Headley and his wife, Anne, found themselves talking about the Knickerbocker. "It always comes up, especially if it's a really big snowstorm and one that people have tried to terrorize us about."

Headley is the author of "Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, D.C.: An Illustrated History of Parlors, Palaces and Multiplexes in the Metropolitan Area, 1894-1997," and he wrote in detail about the Knickerbocker tragedy.

The Knickerbocker was constructed in 1917, during the first golden age of theaters as movie palaces. The Knickerbocker cost a then-astronomical $170,000 to build. The organ alone cost $4,000. The floors were marble. The balcony featured a tearoom.

The sophistication did not extend to relief efforts.

"They didn't have a lot of the equipment to lift the slabs of concrete and steel beams off the people," Headley says. "The rescuers were going around and breaking into people's cars to get the jacks."


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