When I asked a couple of weeks ago for information from readers about the old Poli's Theater in downtown Washington, I had no idea that I was about to subsidize the Postal Service single-handedly.
But the mail has gushed, and the memories along with it. It's enough to make you wish the old building was with us still.
It isn't, of course. As most of my correspondents correctly recalled, Poli's used to stand on the northeast corner of 15th and E streets NW. It was torn down in 1931 to make way for the Federal Triangle. The actual site is occupied today by a park, wedged between the Willard Hotel to the north and Commerce Department headquarters to the south.
According to "Capital Losses," a book that describes prominent Washington buildings that have been torn down, Poli's began life as Albaugh's Opera House. The brick structure became Chase's Opera House in 1901 and Poli's in 1913.
William R. Pierce of Leesburg remembers the day it was torn down:
"Employed at Treasury, my quarters on the southeast corner enjoyed one of those outside balconies and thus I was privileged betimes to have the 'catbird's seat,' " he recalls. "The demolition of Poli's was dramatic and memorable, accomplished mainly by the big 'headache pill' methodically swung from a tall crane."
But before the pill did its work, the Poli's stage hosted all sorts of headline theatrical performances.
Les Colvin of McLean remembers the day in 1924 when a dance band leader named Paul Whiteman played Poli's. He was merely the most popular bandsman of the day, kiddies, and this trip to D.C. was extra-special. The reason? Whiteman played a brand new song by George Gershwin for the first time. It was the famous "Rhapsody in Blue."
Mary Henry Ruch of Reston recalls John Barrymore as Hamlet. Saul Mindel of Silver Spring remembers another Barrymore, Ethel, in "The Love Duet." Elizabeth Graeber of Northwest remembers watching Dennis King in a Saturday matinee performance of "The Desert Song"--and then learning to her sorrow that King was forsaking the stage for the philistine world of Hollywood.
If baseball was your cup of tea, Poli's was probably as inspirational as the Senators. At least it got more hits.
Merritt L. Smith of Northwest remembers hearing comic opera star De Wolf Hopper recite "Casey at the Bat" from the Poli's stage. "It inspired me to memorize it," Smith writes--so much so that he can still recite it today, at 78.
Marion Holland of Chevy Chase must have been at the same performance. After "Casey" was recited, she recalls, "the house lights came on, and peering down from the balcony we saw that the entire Senators' baseball team was occupying the front row and applauding thunderously. That was a day."
For Samuel Rosenberg of Northwest, Poli's is best recalled as a rifle range. "It was in the basement with entrance on E Street," he recalls. "A lot of my high school lunch money was shot away there."
For Ruth Haycock of Annandale, the old prices bring back sentimental smiles. "Fifty cents for standing room!" she writes. Never again, unfortunately.
And for Sister M. Carol Baker of Takoma Park, Poli's prompts victorious memories. In June 1920, Washington's First Annual Baby Show was held on the Poli's stage. The winner was a certain 4-year-old named Baker.
In one way, Poli's lives.
J.W. Goodrich writes that his home on Brandywine Street NW was built with bricks salvaged from the old theater. Ethel Schaefer of Rockville adds that, when she and her husband bought a house in Bethesda in 1932, the real estate agent said its bricks had come from the same source.
It would be nice to be able to report that Poli's will live forever in the memories of Washingtonians. But as Harold Martin of Potomac notes, "pretty soon the only people that will remember Poli's won't be remembered themselves."
That would be a shame. For as Bernadette Wivel of Temple Hills says, those who remember Poli's also remember "what a lovely city it was in those days."