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Haunting faces, scenes and stories from the Knickerbocker Theatre roof crash 95 years ago

Faces and scenes from Knickerbocker Theatre disaster of Jan. 28, 1922. A record-breaking snowstorm began on Jan. 27 and led to the collapse of the roof of the Knickerbocker Theatre during the evening of Jan. 28. The faces of victims and survivors of the roof collapse (upper left); digging through the rubble inside of the theater (upper right); carrying a victim to a makeshift morgue (lower left); and police officers supervise the crowd the day after the roof collapse (lower right). ( <a href="">The Knickerbocker Snowstorm</a> , Arcadia Publishing)

The Knickerbocker was the Titanic of theaters. It was the largest and most luxurious theater ever built in Washington at the time — and doomed to a massive roof collapse four years into its reign. The tragic accident occurred during the opening scene of a featured movie on a Saturday evening, Jan. 28, 1922.

It was cold and snowy when the roof fell. A record-breaking snowstorm was winding down after dumping 28 inches of snow. Despite snow-clogged roads, over 200 people traveled to the Knickerbocker Theatre by foot to watch a silent film. Saturday was comedy night at the theater, and it was the most well-attended night of the week.

At 9 p.m., the featured film, “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford,” began to roll, and the theater’s orchestra struck up a lively tune. A few latecomers were still entering the theater’s auditorium and finding seats. The opening scene quickly produced laughter in the audience.

Within a few minutes after the start of the movie, a loud hissing noise was heard above the music of the orchestra. Some survivors described the noise as the sound of ripping of sheets. The Knickerbocker Theatre’s roof, burdened by the weight of the heavy snow, was splitting down the middle.

A small dust cloud began to spew from a crack that formed in the ceiling above the stage, and the dust slowly descended to the ground. Most of the people in the audience didn’t know what was happening, and they stayed in their seats and continued to watch the film. The orchestra played on and didn’t miss a beat.

Suddenly, the theater’s entire roof broke free from the brick walls and fell as one piece toward the audience below. As the roof fell, it collapsed the theater’s large balcony and pulled down chunks of the brick walls.

The falling roof and balcony impacted the floor of the theater with such speed and force that the windows and doors of the Knickerbocker Theatre were blown out by the compressed air inside the auditorium.

The gust of wind from the falling roof was strong enough to lift several people off the ground and blow them out of the windows and doors. The blown-out victims were the lucky ones. They survived. The rest of the people inside the theater were buried under a mass of concrete, plaster, bricks and twisted steel beams. The death count was 98, with 133 injured.

The weight of the snow was initially blamed for the roof collapse, but it was later determined that there were design and construction flaws with the Knickerbocker Theatre’s roof and how the roof was attached to the walls. The courts, however, were unable to determine who was liable. The families of Knickerbocker victims never received a cent of compensation for their losses despite many lawsuits.

Five years ago, I wrote “The Knickerbocker Snowstorm,” which was published by Arcadia. I was surprised that Knickerbocker families contacted me with their stories after hearing about my book. It had been 90 years since the Knickerbocker disaster occurred, and the stories continued to circulate through the families, mostly by word-of-mouth.

I have recorded the various stories, and hope to publish a “Knickerbocker Stories” book soon, or at least by the 100th anniversary of the crash five years from now.

For a preview of the stories I have compiled, here are 10 story snippets. It will give a glimpse into what happened to some of the people associated with the Knickerbocker tragedy on that dreadful and snowy night of Jan. 28, 1922. Be forewarned, most of the story snippets are quite sad.

Agnes Mellon had seen her share of tragedy during childhood. Mellon’s mother died six months after she was born, and her father died when Mellon was only 7 years old. Mellon bounced between family members while growing up and when she turned 18, she moved to D.C. She found a job at the National Geographic Society and, a year later, was engaged to be married to a man named James Hoffman. Her life was going well.

On the night of Jan. 28, 1922, Mellon and Hoffman decided to see a movie at the Knickerbocker Theatre. On the way to the movie, they stopped to visit Mellon’s sister, Grace Madert. Mellon asked if she could take Madert’s 5-year-old son to the movies. Madert declined, saying the weather was too bad. Mellon, running late for the movie, rushed to the theater with Hoffman. They entered the theater at the moment of the roof collapse. Mellon was crushed to death, but Hoffman was blown into the lobby by the gust of wind from the falling roof. Hoffman didn’t have a scratch. He would visit Mellon and her family for many months after the roof while he grieved. The story from the Madert family was that he never married.

Helen Hopkins was a young Girl Scout leader in D.C. She had a “lover’s spat” with her longtime boyfriend, Victor Zelov, and went on a date with another man to the Knickerbocker Theatre on the night of Jan 28, 1922. The collapse of the roof killed her date, and Hopkins was trapped under piles of concrete and four large steel beams. She used her strong singing voice to call for help and to guide the rescue teams to her location. Hopkins was rescued, but her back was badly injured. Four months later, on May 18, 1922, she married Zelov.

On June 3, 1922, Lou Henry Hoover, the wife of President Herbert Hoover, presented Hopkins with the Girl Scout’s Bronze Cross along with a bouquet of roses in the White House Rose Garden for her courage in the Knickerbocker Theatre. Hopkins was wearing her Girl Scout uniform, and her troop attended the ceremony with her.

David Lyman, Jr. was the pride and joy of his family. David had excellent grades at Western High School in D.C. and was a star athlete on his baseball and basketball teams. During Saturday evenings, after ballgames, the boys from his team would often meet at the Knickerbocker Theatre to relax, hang out and watch silent films. It was their Saturday evening routine.

On the night of the Knickerbocker Theatre disaster, most of his teammates could not make it to the theater because of the snowstorm. Only three boys made it to the theater that evening, including David. When the roof collapsed, David and his best friend, Kirkland Duke, were killed. David’s father died a year later, and they were buried side-by-side in Congressional Cemetery.

Ernesto Natiello was one of the top band leaders in the nation and was recruited to lead the orchestra of the Knickerbocker Theatre three months before the Knickerbocker Disaster. On the night of Jan. 28, 1922, he brought his wife, Mary, and his best friend’s 9-year-old son to watch the performance. Natiello was killed instantly when the roof fell, the boy died later that night from his injuries, and Mary survived with only minor injuries.

Hospital workers, however, incorrectly reported Natiello survived the disaster. He was reported to be alive at Emergency Hospital in D.C. The next day, Mary walked two miles through the snow to visit her husband. When Mary arrived at the hospital and learned the sad news that her husband was dead, and there was a mix-up with the names, she collapsed on the ground in grief. The Washington Herald reported, “She was shocked to prostration.”

Raymond Hart played saxophone and clarinet for the Knickerbocker Theatre Orchestra and lived across the street from the theater. On the night of Jan. 28, 1922, Hart refused to play. Hart’s wife had just given birth to a baby girl the previous day, on Jan. 27, and he wanted to take some time off. He held firm to his decision and refused to play despite pleas from bandleader, Ernesto Natiello.

Hart’s choice to stay with family that night saved his life. He went on to achieve fame as a musician, bandleader and band director of Catholic University. He lived to be 77.

Oreste Natiello was a violin player and the brother of bandleader Ernesto Natiello. Oreste Natiello lost an arm when the roof crashed down on the orchestra. In the hospital, he pleaded with doctors to save his arm because his career as a musician depended on it. He didn’t know his arm was missing, still buried under the rubble in the Knickerbocker Theatre.

On Jan. 26, 1924, a group of vaudeville entertainers held a show in Louisville called the Natiello Benefit Performance. The goal of the show was to raise money to help Oreste Natiello become financially established within the community so he could start a new life and career without his violin and the music he loved to play. Oreste Natiello became a doorman at a hotel in Louisville. He lived to be 78 years old.

George S. Patton was a major in the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Meyer on the night the Knickerbocker roof collapsed. He was sick in bed from an allergic reaction to seafood when he received a phone call from Gen. Harry Hill Bandholtz that summoned him to join the Knickerbocker Theatre rescue effort. Patton led a group of men from Fort Meyer to the Knickerbocker Theatre but their Army trucks become stuck in the snow. Patton sent an officer back to Fort Meyer to bring mule teams to pull their trucks to the theater.

The Army arrived at the theater well after the Marines, who had traveled by foot. Patton’s men were given the job of dismantling the balcony rubble and removing bodies. The Marines had already made many rescues of victims who survived and were given the accolades in the newspapers the following day. Patton, slightly bitter at only finding about “a dozen corpses,” described to his father that the bodies were purple and squished to a dimension of about four inches thick. Patton was also reprimanded by his wife, Bee, for being too graphic in his description of a headless woman pulled from the rubble to their young children.

John Jay Daly was a writer and reporter at The Washington Post. He had been promoted from sports writer to movie critic in a period of time that spanned about 10 years. He was assigned to the Knickerbocker Theatre on the night of Jan. 28, 1922, to report on the newly released movie, “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford.”

Daly was sitting next to the lobby door when the roof started to split open down the middle and with a few quick steps he escaped the crash of the roof into the theater’s lobby. Since he was on-site at the disaster and witnessed what happened, he took the lead role at The Washington Post to report the story. He wrote a 5,000 word article about the tragedy that ran in The Post the following day. His article was read across the country, and the Knickerbocker roof crash became his story. He received national recognition and accepted a job writing for Newsweek in New York City. He later wrote for the news syndicate North American Newspaper Alliance and traveled to Europe to document Hitler’s rise to power. He lived to be 88 years old.

Charles Lyman III was not allowed by his parents to go to the movie until he finished his homework. It was the night of Jan. 28, 1922, and he feverishly tried to finish his homework so he could join his cousin, David, at the Knickerbocker Theatre. When he finished his homework, he rushed through the deep snow to the theater. When he was one block away from the Knickerbocker Theatre, he heard the loud crash of the roof hitting the ground.

For the rest of his life, Lyman would talk about the homework assignment that saved his life. Lyman attended the Naval Academy and became a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. In World War II, Lyman was given command of the destroyer USS Lewis Hancock with 327 officers and men.  In 1945, Lyman was given command of Destroyer Division 10 and became assistant chief of staff for operations of Amphibious Group Three, Pacific Fleet. Lyman lived to be 69 years old.

Joseph Beal arrived home from his honeymoon on Jan. 27, 1922. The honeymoon was short; he and his bride, Margaret, had been married four days earlier.

Beal started his musical career with the U.S. Navy band but was later recruited to be a violin player for the Knickerbocker Theatre’s orchestra. On the night of Jan. 28, the band leader, Ernesto Natiello, talked Beal into playing despite his recent trip and marriage. Margaret was not happy and stayed home. Shortly after 9 p.m. that night, Joseph was crushed and killed by the theater’s falling roof. When Margaret heard the news the next morning, she was “inconsolable.”

On Feb. 4, 1922, Beal’s father, Ben, stood next to his wife at Arlington National Cemetery. Ben Beal had been a violin player earlier in life and had devoted much of his time to raising Joseph Beal and teaching him music. Tears streamed down Ben Beal’s face as he watched the coffin of his son carried through the snow-covered cemetery.

The rest of the story

On Oct. 12, 2015, I received an email from Frank Lyman, the nephew of David Lyman, Jr. from the story above. He informed me his son had died in car accident with a drunk driver. He wrote that he knew how his grandmother must have felt losing her son in the Knickerbocker Theatre disaster. He asked me when I would finish my “Knickerbocker Stories” book. I promised Frank Lyman I’d be done by Christmas, for the 95th anniversary. I was wrong. The book is still not done. To Frank Lyman, I hope this article will suffice for now, and I will finish the book. I promise.