Can you give us any information about the old Penn Gardens, billed as the “handsomest theater and gardens in America,” formerly located at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and 21st Street NW? I have a vintage photograph showing the impressive building facade with a promotional show wagon parked in front, posting relevant information on a broadside. The top-hatted carriage master is blowing a horn to attract public attention. And the gentleman standing front and center with the band uniform would be the acclaimed “Thuro, the King of Melody,” about to perform on the “$10,000 Fotoplayer, the Musical Wonder of the Age.” I wonder what a “Fotoplayer” was.
— Robert Downen, Annandale, Va.
The Fotoplayer was a player piano on steroids, perfect for providing the soundtrack to a silent movie. The machine read a paper roll, which activated the keys of a piano. It could also trigger train whistles, bells, snare and bass drums, and other sound effects. It made a lot of noise and took only one person to operate.
Penn Gardens was the brainchild of Edmund K. Fox, a Washington real estate developer who in 1914 announced he would build a pleasure palace at 21st and I streets NW, across from a little pocket park on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was to have two movie theaters: one enclosed and a second, open-air, 2,500-seat auditorium to screen films when the weather was fine. It would also feature a dance hall with a floor of marble and glass.
Fox claimed that these sorts of amenities would cost visitors $2 at other venues. Admission to Penn Gardens was a mere 10 cents.
The amusement palace hosted many themed events, including, one November, an only-in-Washington type of affair: an “election dance.” Promised an ad: “Returns received by special service.”
Such is how some Washingtonians spent election night before Wolf Blitzer.
Over time, Penn Gardens became better known as a venue for dancing than as a movie house. And that’s when problems began. Penn Gardens came to be seen as a sinful place, at least in the eyes of Washington’s police department, which repeatedly sent officers to observe the dancers. Fox complained that members of the department’s vice squad were conspiring to wreck his business, the Mammoth Amusement Co., which ran Penn Gardens and another dance hall, Center Coliseum, over the Center Market at Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
The situation got so bad that in 1920 Fox sued several city officials, including the District’s police chief and the head of the women’s bureau. He alleged that policewomen were “terrorizing” his patrons. The lady cops were stopping girls and questioning them about their morality. Girls were accused of “spooning” with their male dance partners and dancing with their heads too close together.
Fox’s suit alleged that one girl was told she should leave the dance floor because her dress was so attractive, “it might lure some young man to commit a wrongful act.”
What seemed to especially gall Fox was the fact that the policewomen demanded to be let in to Penn Gardens for free. “Once inside the gates, however, it is alleged they danced as often as any others and took advantage of their official position to criticize the dress and dancing accomplishments of the other women present.”
The police denied any wrongdoing, employing the “bad apple” defense. If even 8 percent of the dance hall patrons were behaving immorally, that was a danger.
Answer Man could not determine the outcome of the suit, but in 1921, newspaper ads announced that Penn Gardens was under new management and had a new name: the Jardin de St. Marks. The premiere act was the Songcopaters Orchestra under the direction of Joseph Robbins. Noted The Washington Post: “Mr. Robbins states that dancing will be strictly censored.”
In fact, the venue was still owned by Fox and the police still seemed obsessed with it. In May 1923, police shut down a dance marathon there, disappointing Elsie Weber and William Farrell, who, although claiming to have set a record of 108 hours of continuous dancing, had wanted to continue. The venue briefly became a “colored” dance hall but that too was raided by police.
In 1926, Penn Gardens was sold to developer Morris Cafritz, who erected an 11-story apartment building there. That’s gone now, too, and on the site today is a gleaming glass office building. It’s full of law firms, and, presumably, less spooning.
Come on, Washington. Let’s keep this marathon going. Send your questions to
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.