An Organ Grinder similar to one you might have seen on the streets of Washington in the late 19th century. (Photo source: Library of Congress)

Organ Grinders and Their Monkeys Once Entertained on DC Sidewalks

If you're a Peter Sellers fan, you're probably familiar with this scene in the 1975 film Return of the Pink Panther, in which Inspector Clouseau fails to notice a bank robbery because he is questioning a street accordion player and his chimpanzee companion about whether or not they have the required permit. ("I am a musician and the monkey is a businessman," the accordionist explains. "He doesn't tell me what to play, and I don't tell him what to do with his money.")

You may not realize that there's a grain of truth in the comedy.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there actually were street musicians who performed with dancing simians in the streets of the nation's capital, and they actually sometimes got into similar beefs with District police.

An 1898 portrait of the Infanta by Giovanni Boldini. What, did you think we were going to post a picture of the scandlous dress? This is a family blog! Also, we couldn't find ANY. (Source: Wikicommons)

An Infanta goes to Washington

Scandals have plagued Washington D.C. pretty much since when it was built. The society pages of the1890s, however, dished some of the juciest gossip- easily done when royalty were still common and the bicycle had just been invented.

One particularly sensational event, taking place in 1893, was the visit of a Spanish Princess to the US. Her manner and dress shocked the D.C. elites and left them talking for a long time.

Over the last half century, Marion Barry defined local politics in the District of Columbia more than any other individual. (Photo source: WETA Television)

Marion Barry: When His Star Ascended

It was 1977, and a handsome, elegant young DC councilman named Marion Barry walked into the grand opening of the W.H. Bone restaurant in Southwest, and made his way to a back table. There, he found local entrepreneur Stuart Long, who was known to be discontented with how difficult it was to get the local bureaucracy to grant liquor permits. As recounted in Harry S. Jaffe's and Tom Sherwood's book Dream City, Barry let Long know that he was running for mayor against council chairman Sterling Tucker and incumbent Walter Washington. "Are you with me?" Barry asked.

"What are my choices?" Long reportedly replied. "You know I want to get Walter out. Sterling's boring. You're fun. I'm with you."

How "Schneider's Folly" Became D.C.'s Most Exotic Landmark

One of the things that helps make Washington's vistas so grand--but continually frustrates developers and architects--is the district's Congressionally-imposed115-year-long ban on skyscrapers. Congress passed the 1899 Height of Buildings Act, and then modified the law in 1910, creating a  complex set of restrictions based on location and street width.

It might seem intuitive that the skyscraper ban was imposed to protect views of the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. But oddly, Congress was prompted to restrict construction heights because of Dupont Circle residents' griping about being overshadowed by what today is regarded as one of the District's architectural treasures--The Cairo apartments at 1615 Q Street NW.

Oscar-Winner "12 Years a Slave" is a Reminder of the Local Slave Trade

Director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, which won Best Picture at the 2014 Academy Awards telecast on Sunday, serves to highlight a horrific and shameful part of local history — the area's role as a transit depot and resale market for humans held in involuntary servitude.

For those who haven't yet seen it, the acclaimed film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American violinist who in 1841 traveled from his home in New York to Washington, DC, with the promise of a high-paying job as a circus musician. He didn't know that his prospective employers actually were slave traders. 

The Demise of DC's Streetcars

For those of us who are nostalgic or liked to play with model trains when we were kids, today marks a rather inauspicious anniversary. 52 years ago, on January 28, 1962, Washington's original streetcar system road the rails for the final time. That last run ended 99 and a half years of service to the nation's capital as buses replaced the trolleys as the primary means of mass transit in the District. So, how did we get to that point?

After going electric in the last decade of the 19th Century, the streetcars quickly became a crucial part of transportation in the nation's capital, just as they were in other cities across the country. But Washington's system--which gradually coalesced from a hodgepodge of small companies into a single entity, the sprawling Capital Transit Co. in 1933--faced special problems.

Young JFK in Georgetown

When we think of President John F. Kennedy, we picture him living in the White House with Jackie, Caroline and John Jr.  But for most of the time he spent in Washington—the years from 1946 through 1960—he was a resident of the city’s Georgetown neighborhood.

When the Massachusetts native moved to Washington after being elected to Congress in 1946, he was just 29 years old and still single, and he followed the same pattern as so many other young people who’ve arrived here over the years in a quest for greatness. He settled into a group house, where after a long day at work he could hang out with his friends, leave his dirty laundry strewn all over the place and lead the carefree existence of a party-loving bachelor.

The Beatles and More! The Musical History of Uline Arena

A previous post detailed the eclectic history of the Uline Arena, also known as Washington Coliseum, the barrel-roofed hall that from the 1940s through the 1980s hosted everything from hockey and basketball to a rodeo featuring Roy Rogers and Trigger. But the arena, located at the corner of M and 2nd Street NE with an entrance on 3rd Street, also has a rich musical history. Jazz great Charlie Parker played there in April 1951, on a bill that also included June Christie and Johnny Hodges. A decade later, Duke Ellington and his orchestra played to a packed house as part of the First International Jazz Festival in Washington. Country star -- and Winchester, Virginia native! -- Patsy Cline was scheduled to play there 10 days after her death in March 1963. (Dottie West took her place.) Of all the acts to play the old Coliseum, the Beatles show on February 11, 1964 probably takes the cake.

Uline Arena, AKA Washington Coliseum: DC’s forgotten venue

If you ride the Red Line Metro, you’ve probably seen it out the window at the New York Avenue stop: A massive, rust-colored structure with a curvilinear-trussed roof. It looks like an abandoned warehouse or factory, or a repair shop for ancient locomotives. You’d probably never suspect that 50 years ago in February, the Beatles played their first U.S. concert there.   It also was the home of Washington’s first NBA team, and hosted events ranging from figure skating and midget auto racing to Dwight Eisenhower’s 1957 inaugural festival and a 1959 speech by Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad.