Emily Robinson

Emily Robinson, a Massachusetts native, comes to DC by way of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. She studies Media & Communication and Political Science, and while she is not a history or music major, her ownership of a Ben Franklin action figure and way too many instruments would suggest otherwise. An elementary school project on Jim Henson, a DC native himself, sparked her interest in finding creative ways to learn and teach about music and history through forms of digital media. When she's not blogging at WETA, Emily can be found taking photos of DC architecture, and searching for trombones and pianos to play throughout the DMV.

Posts by Emily Robinson

A Washington Landmark: Ben’s Chili Bowl

Facade of Ben's Chili Bowl (Photo Source: Creative Commons) https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/12/15542832_25808e5769_b.jpg

According to co-founder Virginia Ali, Ben’s Chili Bowl has never been “your typical restaurant.” Unlike other diners of the 1950’s, Virginia’s husband Ben thought “Washington might be hungry for the kind of spicy dishes he had known while growing up in the Caribbean,” and so he created his own recipe for chili con carne—which remains a closely guarded family secret. A unique element of the restaurant at the beginning, was that “Ben’s spicy chili was served only atop hot dogs, half-smokes or hamburgers,” and not by the bowl as the place’s name would suggest. Ben’s invention of the chili half-smoke quickly become D.C.’s staple food item, and for the next 20 years, loyal Washingtonians overcame a slew of significant obstacles to get their fix.

The Biggest Cheese in Washington

The Great Cheese Levee (Photo Source: Perley's Reminiscences, National Portrait Gallery Blog) http://npg.si.edu/blog/big-cheese-presidential-gifts-mammoth-proportions

While Presidents of the United States have received all different kinds of honors and gifts throughout the years, there is one particular 19th century trend of presidential gift-giving that stands out…or maybe stands alone. Giant wheels of cheese have appeared at the White House multiple times in presidential history, starting in 1801 when Thomas Jefferson was gifted the 4 foot-wide, 17 inch-high, 1,235 pound Cheshire “Mammoth” Cheese from the citizens of Cheshire, Massachusetts. Funny enough, Jefferson’s Mammoth Cheese was not the last one to enter the White House. Andrew Jackson received his 1,400 pound New York-made Mammoth Cheese in 1835, and invited all of Washington to a party at the White House 2 years later to eat it. 

Creating a National Culture Center

AR7606-H. President John F. Kennedy Speaks at Fundraising Event for the National Cultural Center, November 29, 1962 (Photo Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum) AR7606-H, Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

At 7 p.m. on November 29th , 1962, 5,000 Washingtonians dressed in black ties and furs arrived at the D.C. National Guard Armory for a $100-a-plate dinner, and fundraising show titled An American Pageant of the Arts. President and Mrs. Kennedy started the event by addressing the crowd about the importance of the arts in fostering American culture and a healthy democracy. Afterwards, the master of ceremonies, Leonard Bernstein, took over and the 2 hour and 43 minute show, featuring some of the greatest performers in music, literature, and comedy, began. The variety show kicked off a $30 million fundraising initiative to raise money for the construction of a National Cultural Center on the bank of the Potomac.

Washington’s Best Thing Since Before Sliced Bread

Dorsch's Ford truck, 1923. (Photo Source: Library of Congress)  “Dorsch’s Ford Truck.” 1923. Photo, print, drawing. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Accessed October 30, 2017. https://www.loc.gov/item/npc2007007765/.

The industrial revolution was reshaping the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as the country shifted from a pure agrarian structure, to a more industrial one. While many major American cities of the early 20th  century were home to bustling factories and mills pumping smoke into the air, Washington’s largest processing industry filled the air with a different smell—fresh baking bread. In the same neighborhood as the former Griffith Stadium in Shaw, family-owned bakeries lined the streets. Among the most prominent of these bakeries were Dorsch’s White Cross Bakery, Holzbeierlein Bakery, and Corby Baking Company, which were responsible for producing almost all of the bread, cake, and pastry products sold in the Washington area, consequently making them all household names in D.C.

Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band Disbands

Glenn Miller’s band plays for US and Allied troops in England, Jun-Dec 1944. (Photo Source: U.S. Air Force, Public Domain) http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/Museum-Exhibits/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/196150/maj-glenn-miller-army-air-force-band/

On November 13, 1945, the National Press Club hosted a dinner honoring President Harry Truman at Hotel Statler. The 1,000 person guest list featured a virtual who’s who of Washington’s political elite, but more than anything, attendees looked forward to a performance by Glenn Miller’s famous Army Air Force Band. While festive, the evening was also bittersweet, for the band was without its leader. Nearly a year earlier, Major Glenn Miller, famous bandleader and trombonist, had gone missing over the English Channel, while traveling from England to France to give concerts to the troops liberating Europe. 

Whatever Floats Your...Orchestra

Washingtonians in canoes listen to the NSO. Photo Source: Washington Evening Star. Used with Permission by the DC Public Library

On the evening of July 14, 1935, just behind the Lincoln Memorial, on the steps of the Watergate Amphitheatre, 10,000 Washingtonians, dressed in flannel and gingham, sat on blankets and newspapers. Out on the water, hundreds of others dressed in bathing suits floated in canoes, eager to experience Washington’s newest summertime tradition: floating concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra. The NSO was taking to the water, inaugurating a new “Sunset Symphony” series, wherein the orchestra would offer summertime performances on a 75 foot concert barge bobbing in the Potomac River.

Poe's Washington Excursion

“Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, known as the "Annie" Daguerreotype,” 1849, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Allan_Poe#/media/File:Edgar_Allan_Poe_daguerreotype_crop.png

The celebrated, yet ever tormented, writer Edgar Allan Poe, famously spent much of his life living in Baltimore and Richmond, but he surprisingly spent very little time in D.C. despite residing in such close proximity. He did however have one…interesting encounter in Washington. Frequent transitions through different literary critic jobs left him in a constant state of mental and financial instability; this led Poe to determine that he needed to find a job that could provide him with more financial security. His friend Frederick William Thomas was friends with the President's son, Robert, and offered to help get him a government job. Eventually in 1843, Poe traveled down to Washington from his home in Philadelphia to meet with President Tyler. The true account of how Poe conducted himself upon arriving is still contested today. 

Two Steinways and Three Roosevelts

Gold Steinway in the East Room of the White House (Photo Source: Library of Congress)

In 1903 and 1938, Steinway & Sons gifted their 100,000th and 300,000th custom, art-case grand pianos to the White House. The pianos, crafted with the White House East Room in-mind,  were unlike any other Steinway pianos ever produced--they had extravagantly painted cases, gold leaf designs, and intricately carved wood. The pianos quickly became beacons for art and culture in the East Room and Entrance Hall of the White House where the second one still resides today. Theodore, Edith, and Franklin Roosevelt utilized and dedicated these two Steinway pianos to help establish the White House as a hub for music in Washington moving forward into the 20th Century.

The March King Steps Down

Sousa and the Marine Band in 1891, the year before Sousa left (Photo Source: Library of Congress)

In the summer of 1892 Washingtonians had their hearts broken. After 12 years of conducting the United States Marine Band, John Philip Sousa, D.C. native and beloved conductor, submitted his resignation to the U.S. Marine Corps. He was leaving for Chicago, where he had accepted an offer to serve as musical director of a new military-style civilian band. The public of DC would not let their beloved Sousa go easy, and arranged a farewell testimonial concert where he could exhibit his grand conducting skills for an eager audience one more time. This concert served as the first of two farewell concerts for Sousa with the second taking place the very next day on the White House Lawn. 

The Humble Beginnings of the National Symphony Orchestra

The National Symphony at their inaugural concert on January 31, 1930 (Photo Source: Used with Permission from the NSDAR Archives)

At 4:45pm on January 31st, 1930 the “new and shaky ensemble known tentatively as the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington D.C.” took the stage of the recently finished DAR Constitution Hall at eighteenth and C streets northwest. Conductor Rudolf Schueller and the musicians were welcomed into the hall by vigorous applause from an audience of 2,000 music-loving Washingtonians who eagerly awaited the newly established orchestra’s first notes. Arriving at this moment of glory did not happen easily, or quickly for that matter. While Washington is typically considered a capital of arts and culture today, this was definitely not the case in the early 1900’s.