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Remembering the 100th anniversary of Washington’s Knickerbocker theater disaster

On Jan. 28, 1922, the roof collapsed at the Knickerbocker Theatre. A century later, the 98 people who died that day will be remembered at an outdoor ceremony at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW in Adams Morgan. (Library of Congress)
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A previous version of this column incorrectly said the Hotel Lexington was in Rockbridge County, Va. It was in Richmond. The column has been corrected.

In his sermon of March 19, 1922, the Rev. J.B. Hunley of Hanover Avenue Christian Church in Richmond, reflected upon a series of “sad tragedies” that had recently bedeviled the region: a hotel that burned, killing 12; an airship that crashed, killing 34; and a theater roof that collapsed, killing 98.

“God uses them as warnings,” Hunley said of the disasters, “but they go unheeded. Men go on with their work and their play; each one chases his favorite fantom as before. The dead are so soon forgotten.”

The hotel was the Hotel Lexington in Richmond. The airship was the U.S. Army’s Italian-built Roma, which crashed and burned near Norfolk. And the theater was the Knickerbocker, at the corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW in Washington. On Jan. 28, 1922 — after a blizzard had dumped more than two feet of snow on the city — the roof buckled, sending the ceiling crashing down and killing dozens of people who’d come to watch the silent comedy “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford.”

Josh Gibson hopes the Knickerbocker’s dead won’t ever be forgotten. At 6 p.m. on Jan. 28 — the 100th anniversary of the tragedy — he and Kevin Ambrose, author of a book on the Knickerbocker disaster, will stand across from where the theater once stood and remember.

The pair were originally planning a lecture and slide show at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The coronavirus pandemic forced them to alter their plans. The public is still invited to the candlelight memorial.

“We’ll have a brief historical snapshot of what happened,” Gibson said. “Then we’ll read the names of the victims. We're not sure if that's ever been done, to be honest.”

The event will be on the northeast corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road, cater-cornered from where the doomed theater stood.

Ambrose is a writer, photographer and contributor to the Capital Weather Gang. His book on the Knickerbocker disaster was published in 2013. Gibson’s day job is as director of communications for the D.C. Council. He’s a D.C. history buff who lives in Adams Morgan, as the neighborhood is now known.

Gibson said the Knickerbocker roof collapse remains the city’s deadliest single-day disaster, one that made headlines around the world.

It was news because of the high loss of life, of course, and because of the mundane nature of the setting: What could be safer than a movie theater? But Jan. 28, 1922, was also emblematic of the city itself, a place where out-of-town politicians and foreign diplomats lived among native-born locals, where the well-born and the lowborn could share armrests. All were among the victims that day.

Gibson has collected ephemera connected to that fateful day, including newspaper clippings, postcards and a poster promoting a newsreel that included news of the collapse. He has a copy of the program given to attendees of Crandall’s Knickerbocker Theatre. It lists that week’s cinematic attractions, including “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford” on Saturday. According to the program, the film was, “The tale of a couple of happy crooks, who were startled, one day, to find themselves honest men.”

A souvenir 28-page booklet called “The Storm” was published after the disaster and includes photos of a snow-trapped Washington and the remains of the theater. Gibson has a copy of that, too.

For months, newspapers ran stories related to the Knickerbocker, from the close calls of survivors to details from the wills of the dead. I found a classified ad that ran in the Evening Star two weeks after the collapse seeking “CANVASSERS for booklet, a memorial to victims of the Knickerbocker disaster; energetic individuals can make good money. Apply room 310, Star building.”

If such a booklet was ever produced, Gibson hasn’t seen it.

On April 30, the Washington Times printed the sheet music to a song by local tunesmith Abraham Gamse that it said was “Dedicated to Those to Whom the Knickerbocker Disaster Brought Sorrow.”

The newspaper described “Try to Forget,” as a “comforting, solacing philosophical song, whose lyric is brightening and cheering. It breathes a message of hope and optimism which will do everybody good. Gamse is one of Washington’s most gifted and prolific composers and it is agreed by critics that ‘Try to Forget’ is his masterpiece.”

Was it a new song, specially written, or an old song, repurposed? Hard to say. There’s nothing specific to Jan. 28, 1922, in the lyrics, which begin:

Oftentimes you dream of yesterday,/ when the skies above were dull and gray./ Take a tip from one who knows./ Just forget your cares and woes….

Try to forget that you’re lonely!/Try to forget that you’re blue!/Only remember the happy days you’ve had./They’re coming back to you.

It’s probably not a sentiment the Rev. Hunley would embrace. Don’t forget, he’d say, remember.

See you soon

I’m taking some time off. I should be back in this space on Jan. 31.

Read more from John Kelly.