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Deathtrap: 1917

Deathtrap: 1917

        One hundred years ago today ...

October 1917. Washington, D.C. "Knickerbocker Theatre." Harry Crandall's new Knickerbocker cinema at Columbia Road and 18th Street N.W. opened on October 13, 1917, with the historical drama "Betsy Ross," and an appearance by its star, Alice Brady. Less than five years later, 98 moviegoers were killed here when the roof caved in under an accumulation of snow during a blizzard. View full size.


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Strange thing

I used to pass the replacement theater The Ambassador as a child with my grandma. Even though it was open, it always appeared to be closed. I once ran inside and there were only three people. I felt very uncomfortable and ran back out. I never went in again. Then poof, one day it was gone.

Great Aunt

My Great Aunt Veronica Murphy died in the disaster. 29 years old!

Knickerbocker disaster

Family history has it that an uncle of ours did attend the Knickerbocker that evening and left the theater. But he forgot his galoshes and went back inside, and was killed by the collapse. Very sad event. Our family still talks about it.

"Betsy Ross"

"Betsy Ross" is one of the very few films from the Woodrow Wilson era that has survived intact. A few months ago, I rented it from my local library, and found it to be still quite watchable.

Biltmore Street

I currently live on the 1900 block of Biltmore Street, a block from where the Knickerbocker sat. My grandmother and her sisters were to attend the theater that evening as well, but canceled. The lot now consists has a Suntrust Bank whose structure was built in the 1970s in what is now a vibrant, affluent neighborhood.

Alice Brady

Ironically, Alice Brady won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Mrs. O'Leary in the disaster flick "In Old Chicago" (1937).

General Patton to the Rescue

I think he was a colonel at the time, but George Patton was involved in the gruesome recovery effort after the theater's roof collapse. From the book "General Patton: A Soldier's Life" by Stanley B. Hirshson:

Amid his writings and visions, Patton experienced a touch of activity at the end of January 1922. One Saturday night, he was sent to the Knickerbocker theater in Washington after its roof collapsed during a heavy snowfall. Ninety-seven people were killed. With a hundred men Patton helped get out "about a dozen corpses... They were pretty well squashed," he informed his father. "Many of the heads being only three or four inches thick made it rather hard to identify people as they were a sort of purple color."

Is there a doctor in the house?

My great-aunt and -uncle lived a few blocks from the Knickerbocker, and like the family of the other poster, they decided not to go to the movies that night due to the bad weather. My great uncle was a doctor and as soon as word got out about the disaster, he rushed to the scene to help the victims.

Earliest Memory

My mother-in-law, born in DC in 1920, said her earliest memory was responding to the adults' news of the fire with "Knickerbocker-fall-down-break-neck" over and over.

The Knickerbocker Storm

My maternal grandparents moved to Washington when they were married in 1914. They had planned on going to the Knickerbocker on the night of the disaster but decided to remain home due to the weather. I'm glad they did; otherwise my ending would likely have occurred a quarter century or so before my beginning!

Photoplays de Luxe

When it opened, the Knickerbocker was touted as being fireproof -- and while it apparently was, unfortunately fireproof did not equate with disaster-proof. An earlier newspaper article documents the architect as Reginald Wyckliffe Geare. Both Geare and Crandall later committed suicide.

New Theater Near Completion

The Knickerbocker Theater at Eighteenth street and Columbia road, the newest addition to Crandall's circuit of theaters, will throw open its doors this week. The house will be devoted in the presentation of photoplays de luxe with full symphonic orchestral accompaniment.

The structure, wholly unlike anything of the kind yet built in Washington, is absolutely fireproof throughout and the walls of Indiana limestone are Pompeian art brick. The auditorium is in the shape of an elongated triangle, generally following the shape of the lot, which is entirely occupied. The stage is in the apex of the triangle, and the arrangement lends itself admirably to the purpose for which it is designed. An unobstructed view of the stage can be had from every part of the auditorium. Along the front mezzanine floor are located the boxes, which will be reserved for each performance, an innovation in the conduct of local picture theaters. Immediately back of the reserved boxes is a broad promenade leading to the balcony section. A number of artistic loggias projecting from the mezzanine lounge overhand the auditorium and give space for other boxes and at the rear of the second floor is located a Japanese tea room.

The auditorium is lighted by a new system of semidirect, self-diffusing type entirely new for theater lighting by means of which any desired light effect can be obtained in an instant. This lighting will be in harmony with the projected picture and effects ranging from full sunlight to subdued moonlight and the semidarkness of dawn will flood the theater as various scenes are projected upon the screen. The electrical fixtures have been specially designed for the building as have the seats, hangings, draperies and other furnishings, all of which are of the Adam period, the color scheme of the interior being ivory, gold and pale blue. The color scheme of the ladies reception room leading from the orchestra promenade will be blue and gold with furniture and hangings in harmony.

The ventilating system is augmented by giant typhoon fans and blowers and is of the latest pattern. The air in the the theater will be changed every three minutes.

Washington Post, Oct 7, 1917

And Then

The massive blizzard of 1922 came and took it away.

[Good point! I added that to the caption. And the title. - Dave]

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