Remembering the 100th anniversary of Washington’s Knickerbocker theater disaster
By John Kelly
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. details and photos