Friday, November 23, 2007
The Ambassador Theater and How It Rocked DC
Around 1927, my mother remembers walking with her Dad from Mozart Place to the Ambassador Theater on 18th and Columbia Road to see something new. It was "a talkie" featuring Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. Now flash forward forty years to 1967 when the shuttered theater became a home to something new again - an amazing place to see rock n' roll. I, unfortunately, was only about eight at the time, but this past weekend, yet another forty years forward, I went to a reunion of those who made it happen. Jeff Krulik our local film maker (and hero) helped bring these guys together from all over the country for this event.
In 1967 Tony Finestra, Court Rodgers and Joel Mednick were three young guys selling fire extinguishers of all things when they heard about the Summer of Love out in San Francisco. Out there they went, and when they came back to D.C., they came with a vision to make things happen here. They rented the Ambassador Theater, fixed it up, and booked The Grateful Dead. The Dead's equipment arrived, but unfortunately the city pulled their permit at the last minute not wanting a hippie project to move forward when things were getting touch in the anti- war movement. But our boys fought back and finally opened on July 28, 1967 with a local band, Natty Bumpo, and headliner The Peanut Butter Conspiracy.
The Ambassador was an enormous space. All 1500 seats had been removed. The Psychedelic Power and Light Company took over the balcony and used multiple projectors and black lights to fill the room and cover the walls with colors and images- a stand alone show of its own. Tickets were $1.50 on week nights, $2.50 on weekends.
The mezzanine level boasted a head shop selling lava lamps, posters and well, you know, hippie stuff. What a scene it must have been. Not only was it a concert hall, but neighborhood kids were invited for special matinees. It was also used as a staging area for the march on the Pentagon. Even Norman Mailer showed up on stage
A young guy named Jimi Hendrix had been touring with The Monkees that same summer, but his style didn't quite fit that double bill. His manager begged The Ambassador folks to let him play there for 5 nights that August, and Pete Townsend of The Who came to see him. (I'm not making this stuff up- ask Nils Lofgren) This all happened here.
More From Nils Lofgren:
"The room was humming, not only with the expectation of seeing the Jimi Hendrix Experience, but that Pete Townshend was in the audience, and it was just an extraordinary pivotal night for me. Hendrix came out and said he was going to dedicate the first song to Pete Townshend and he was going to do a rendition of 'Sgt. Pepper.' Now being naive, and being a huge Beatles lover, a lot of us thought 'well, you're only a three piece band, how can you play 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,' there's all these other guitars and strings.' We just didn't have a clue of what Hendrix was really about. He counted off the song and I remember he kind of disappeared, he just did one of those things where he fell to the floor, sitting on the floor rocking with the guitar between his legs kind of doing a 'Purple Haze/ Sgt. Peppers' riff, then he sort of bounces back up and does an insane version of 'Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.' And when he dropped to the floor everyone just jumped up to try to see him, and from that moment on everyone was standing and mesmerized by obviously the greatest rock and roll guitar player that ever lived... There were just a lot of inspired moments like that at the Ambassador; it was this dark, beautiful, haunted, inspired room that you could go to and get lost in the light show and friends and the camradarie and the excitement of being in the audience discovering all this great new music; it was this real pivotal place in Washington, DC for all of the music scene, young and old."
Canned Heat, Moby Grape, John Lee Hooker, Vanilla Fudge, The Fugs, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and more all appeared at The Ambassador. Our own Joe Dolan of The Beatnik Flies mopped the floors there. His cousin, Patty made this hoe-down poster.
The sad thing, as often happens in this realm, the scene wouldn't last. It was partly a matter of bad publicity and partly the atmosphere of the times. (Even I remember how threatened people were by the hippie thing.) At the reunion, stories were told about police who gave parking tickets to legally parked theater goers and waited outside to arrest kids who had violated the D.C. curfew.
The experiment ended about six months later, and the theater was torn down not too long after. Today the site is occupied by a vapid, non descript plaza. The next time you are in Adam's Morgan, you might want to walk by there-and remember Jimi plus all the others that once played music or danced in the light shows.
Remember the ghosts that once were dreams.
P.S. Speaking of ghosts: The Ambassador once stood on the site of The Knickerbocker Theater which collapsed under the weight of snow in 1922. Ninety eight people were killed.