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The Legendary–But Short-Lived–History of D.C. Concert Hall Ambassador Theatre

The Ambassador Theatre

Poster from the Ambassador Theatre

One of D.C.’s most notorious concert halls was also the most short-lived.

The history of the Ambassador Theatre is a strange one. Its legacy has mostly been preserved by the lucky few who attended or played a show there during its six-month existence. Constructed from the remains of the Knickerbocker Theater, Ambassador Theatre first opened in 1923 on the corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road in Adams Morgan as a movie theater. By the mid ’60s, it was struggling with poor attendance and closed its doors.

Then, in 1967, three entrepreneurs inspired by the San Francisco psychedelic rock scene decided to breathe new life into the Ambassador by reopening it as a concert hall. Owners Joel Mednick, Anthony Finestra, and Court Rogers combined the theater’s 11 movie projectors with three additional slide projectors, strobe lights, and fans, creating an ambient and trippy light show designed to give added layers to the live bands they booked.

Even though Mednick, Finestra, and Rogers had a clear-cut vision for their venue, they encountered challenges right from the start.

“There was no alcohol served at Ambassador,” said local music historian and documentarian Jeff Krulik, “so they weren’t making any money from bar tabs. But there were vending machines and a head shop.”

The Ambassador also faced challenges and pushback from the local community and the police. “The counterculture was just emerging. They had a lot of hassles by the police, and the neighborhood didn’t want them. Parents were not happy,” said Krulik. “It goes back to the generation gap of the time period.”

The first and best example of the pushback they received was during the Ambassador’s first show. The Grateful Dead was set to headline in June of 1967, but they were forced to cancel after the venue had problems getting necessary permits. “Contracts were signed; posters were printed; everything was ready to go,” said Krulik. “[The owners] lost a lot of money on it.”

When Ambassador eventually opened to the public at the end of July, they had a full concert slate booked out to several months. One the acts set to play was a young Jimi Hendrix, who was offered a five-day residency at the venue.

Though he was popular in Britain at the time, he was still a rising star in the States. His shows grew from a paltry attendance of about 50 people on his first night to over 800 for the final show. It was at his last show at the Ambassador–on August 13, 1967–that spurred two significant moments in D.C. music history.

Long after the Ambassador closed, there were rumors that Hendrix had played with a burning guitar, flames visible from the crowd. It wasn’t until this year that photographic evidence came to light and confirmed the rumors to be true. This was also the same night that Hendrix drew a few famous fans to his show. Earlier that same evening, The Who opened for Herman’s Hermits at DAR Constitution Hall; several concert-goers, including Pete Townshend and John Entwistle, made the trek to Ambassador to watch Hendrix’s legendary performance.

Despite the success of Hendrix’s shows and a regular roster of performers, it wasn’t enough to save the Ambassador. It closed its doors permanently on January 10, 1968, a mere five and a half months after hosting its first concert. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Ambassador, Krulik is setting up an event this Saturday at Songbyrd, located across from where the venue used to be.

“I’ve always been interested in history, music and in what has happened in D.C. over the years,” Krulik said about his investment in the venue and the anniversary party. The location is no coincidence, either; in the days of the Ambassador, Songbyrd was known as Showboat Lounge, and many acts who played the Ambassador would go there after their sets, including Hendrix.

When owners Alicia Edmonson and Joe Lapan were first looking at Songbyrd, they didn’t fully know its history. But upon learning of the connection to the Ambassador, they started doing some research. “One of the first photos we found was of Jimi Hendrix,” said Edmonson. “When he was at Ambassador, he would go across the street to Showboat Lounge in between sets and hang out.”

The anniversary celebration is a reunion of sorts, an opportunity for people who experienced the Ambassador to gather and share their stories. But beyond that, it is a chance for anyone who is interested in music or history to learn more about the Adams Morgan area and view the posters, photos, and newspaper clippings that highlight the counterculture effect the Ambassador had on its neighborhood.

While some of the buildings from the Ambassador’s era are still standing and look as they did back then, the Ambassador itself was torn down in 1969. The location now houses a SunTrust bank, a very stark juxtaposition to what used to be there.

“If Ambassador were still standing today, it would probably be preserved as a historic landmark,” said Lapan.