My Grandfather and the Night the Knickerbocker Theater’s Roof Collapsed

I never knew my grandfather on my father’s side. He died in 1964, ten years before I was born. My father was not one to talk much about him so I know almost nothing about the man except for what was in his death notice and a few stories here and there.

My mom recently unearthed a letter that he had written to his sister in 1922 (He was born in 1899 and had my father in 1946) after being present at the Knickerbocker theater the night that the roof collapsed killing 98 people and injuring 133. Here’s wikipedia’s entry on the tragedy:

The Knickerbocker Theater was the largest and newest movie house in Washington, D.C., built in 1917 and owned by Harry Crandall.[6] The roof was flat, which allowed the snow which had recently fallen to remain on the roof. During the movie’s (Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford) intermission, the weight of the heavy, wet snow was too much for the roof to bear. The roof split down the middle, bringing down the balcony seating as well as a portion of the brick wall. Dozens were buried. The media reported it as similar to a scene from World War I. People with lanterns frantically attempted to rescue victims of the disaster. By midnight, 200 rescue workers had organized the scene. The numbers of those involved in the rescue increased to over 600 by 2:30 a.m. Nearby residents helped feed the rescuers, also supplying them with hot drinks. This disaster ranks as one of the worst in Washington. D.C. history.[1] Congressman Andrew Jackson Barchfeld was among those killed in the theater.

(photo from

And here is my grandfather’s letter about what it was like from the inside:

Feb. 11, 1922

Dear Ethel:

For your information I will tell you all I can about what happened. This is the last time I am ever going to tell anyone.

I was sitting in the front of the balcony all alone about four rows back. Just before the roof fell I was about to leave. There was a rumble and a loud cry and on looking up I saw the ceiling waver and then fall in a solid mass. That is, it all came down at once. Before I could grasp what was happening the balcony dropped. I had just time to drop to the floor and lie flat. The seats in front of me kept me from being pitched forward as the others in the front of the balcony were. After I fell quite a way the floor of the balcony seemed to open from under me and then I dropped through with nothing under me. The idea is that as long as I had something under me during the larger part of the drop, the force of the fall on landing wouldn’t be so great. When I fell through the floor of the balcony I probably didn’t drop much further, but that little bit hurt me more than anything else. I then went to sleep for a while, but the screams around me woke me up. Fortunately nothing heavy fell on me, although I was practically buried under plaster and pieces of the chairs. Everything was pitch dark and as soon as I could I squirmed around and crawled out into a place that reminded me of a cave. It was almost big enough to stand in.

When the firemen arrived with flashlights they stuck them through a little opening and I could see where I was. I saw a man still conscious who asked me to get him up. He was buried as I had been, although his arm was broken. I managed to pull him out and the firemen made an opening above and hauled him through. I then saw a woman under him who also was still conscious. She begged me to stay until they could get her out. There was a big concrete block on her foot. It was too heavy for me to move and so I had to wait for a fireman to cut through and with him we managed to get her out.

I felt pretty weak myself when they lifted me through an opening in the top. They had lights all around then and I could see well. There was not a sign of a person nor of a chair, the roof covering the entire theater. I walked across the roof to the door and was taken into a house across the street where I was looked over by a doctor and had my arm bandaged. He said I needed a couple of stitches taken, but as there were more important things for the doctors to do then, he told me to have it done the first thing in the morning. After a while, I felt O.K. and borrowed an overcoat and went home. I live about a half mile up the road from the theater. The next morning I had my arm attended to and took that Monday off and went down town and bought a new overcoat.

I felt O.K. and worked up until a couple of days ago when the doctor picked the scab off my wrist and saw a little infection, so he ordered me to stay home and keep it soaked in an antiseptic. It is all right now and I expect to go back to work Monday.

My clothes were covered in blood, as I had a slight cut on my lip which bled quite a lot.

While those in the balcony had a better chance than those underneath, not a person in the first two rows of the balcony were known to have been saved. They were pitched forward and were probably killed by the fall.

I never saw the people who were sitting side of me again and believe that they too were pitched forward over the front of the balcony.

In all I don’t think that I had been under there more than twenty minutes before I got out. I was one of the first ones to get out.

To illustrate how much plaster was over me, I will say that every pocket of my clothes had some in it. Even the inside pocket of my coat and my small vest pockets.

My trusty Ingersoll valued at $2.00 came through all right and is reliable as ever.

I don’t know what I’ll do for amusement Saturday nights as I had always attended the picture show in that particular theater, although it was not customary for me to sit in the balcony. It seems queer to me that I was in the balcony, as that was contrary to my habit.

This is about as much as I can say about it as it is a pretty hard matter to describe.

Au revoir.

Ebert: “I do not like you, John McCain.”

Guess who’s not coming to dinner:

I do not like you, John McCain. My feeling has nothing to do with issues. It has to do with common courtesy. During the debate, you refused to look Barack Obama in the eye. Indeed, you refused to look at him at all. Even when the two of you shook hands at the start, you used your eyes only to locate his hand, and then gazed past him as you shook it.

Obama is my guy. If you are rude to him, you are rude to me. If you came to dinner at my house and refused to look at or speak with one of my guests, that would be bad manners and I would be offended. Same thing if I went to your house. During the debate, you were America’s guest.

What was your problem? Do you hold this man in such contempt that you cannot bear to gaze upon him? Will you not even speak to him directly?
Do you think he doesn’t have the right to be running for President?
Were you angry because after you said you wouldn’t attend the debate, he said a President should be able to concern himself with two things at the same time? He was right. The proof is, you were there. Were you angry with him because he called your bluff?

During the debate, Jim Lehrer repeatedly called upon both candidates to speak directly to each other. Obama looked at you. He addressed you as “John,” which as a fellow senator is his privilege. His body language was open. You stared straight ahead, or at Lehrer, or into space. Your jaw was clinched. You had a tight little smile, or a grimace, or a little shake of your head.

Fatwa against Zardari for flirting with Palin


New Delhi: A Pakistani cleric has issued a fatwa against Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari for flirting with US Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Maulana Abdul Ghafar of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid said that Zardari’s behaviour was un-Islamic and that the President has shamed the entire nation.

The Maulana said that President Zardari’s indecent gestures, filthy remarks and repeated praise of a non-Muslim lady wearing a short skirt is not only un-Islamic but also unbecoming of a head of state of a Muslim country.

He said that the manner in which Zardari shook hands with Sarah Palin and expressed his deep desire to hug her is intolerable and shameful.

(via Slog)

Philip Pullman on Book Banning

From The Guardian:

When I heard that my novel The Golden Compass (the name in the USA of Northern Lights) appeared in the top five of the American Library Association’s list of 2007’s most challenged books, my immediate and ignoble response was glee. Firstly, I had obviously annoyed a lot of censorious people, and secondly, any ban would provoke interested readers to move from the library, where they couldn’t get hold of my novel, to the bookshops, where they could. That, after all, was exactly what happened when a group called the Catholic League decided to object to the film of The Golden Compass when it was released at the end of last year. The box office suffered, but the book sales went up – a long way up, to my gratification.

Because they never learn. The inevitable result of trying to ban something – book, film, play, pop song, whatever – is that far more people want to get hold of it than would ever have done if it were left alone. Why don’t the censors realise this?

Who Isn’t Getting Screwed By The Economy?

High-end prostitutes!

One thing I’ve learned is that economic downturns can be boom times for high-end sex workers. Sex workers of the past waited on street corners, outside bars, and around parks, and their transactions were fleeting and usually for a few dollars. Today’s high-end sex workers see themselves as therapists, part of a vast metropolitan wellness industry that includes private chefs and yoga teachers. Many have regular clients who visit them several times per month, paying them not only for sex but also for comfort and affirmation.

The cost may be thousands of dollars for an evening of leisure. Few people outside of the corporate work force can afford this price tag. And, in good times, Wall Street came calling.

(via Kottke)

Why Bail? The Banks Have a Gun Pointed at Their Head and Are Threatening to Pull the Trigger

From Talking Points Memo:

If you have a real story, you don’t have to make up phony stories. That’s pretty straightforward.

I’ve heard lots of phony stories. Much of the country’s political and economic leadership has been running around raising the prospect of the Great Depression and a breakdown in the banking system (I actually had taken the latter seriously). These stories are absolutely not true.

There is no plausible scenario under which the no bailout scenario gives us a Great Depression. There is a more plausible scenario (but highly unlikely) that the bailout will give us a Great Depression. There is no way that the failure to do a bailout will lead to more than a very brief failure of the financial system. We will not lose our modern system of payments.

At this point I cannot identify a single good reason to do the bailout.

The basic argument for the bailout is that the banks are filled with so much bad debt that the banks can’t trust each other to repay loans. This creates a situation in which the system of payments breaks down. That would mean that we cannot use our ATMs or credit cards or cash checks.

That is a very frightening scenario, but this is not where things end. The Federal Reserve Board would surely step in and take over the major money center banks so that the system of payments would begin functioning again. The Fed was prepared to take over the major banks back in the 80s when bad debt to developing countries threatened to make them insolvent. It is inconceivable that it has not made similar preparations in the current crisis.