Gary Oelze purchased a Shirlington restaurant called the Birchmere in the mid 1960s. At the time, he wasn't planning to get into the music business. But soon, the Birchmere became a hub for bluegrass music in the nation's capital. Today, it is an internationally renowned music hall that draws fans of every musical genre.
April 17, 1970 was a big day for the United States—President Richard Nixon even described it as the “proudest day of [his] life and in the life of the country.” That afternoon, the ill-fated Apollo 13 crew splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and made it to safety. The nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.
But the day wasn’t over yet. That evening, President Nixon would sit in the East Room of the White House for another cultural milestone: a legendary performance by country music star Johnny Cash.
In the summer of 1970, Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert were driving down Clopper Road to a family reunion in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Montgomery County was a much more rural place in those days, and the scenery inspired Danoff to repetitively sing “country roads, country roads, country roads.”
Under normal circumstances, this burst of creativity might have gone nowhere, but the couple happened to be a duo of professional musicians. So, with the help of John Denver, they soon turned the phrase into the earworm we know today.
When I.M. Pei, the celebrated Chinese-American architect from New York, was selected to design a new addition for D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, the Washington Post’s architecture critic remarked it was “no doubt one of the toughest [assignments] since Michelangelo was asked to put a dome on St. Peter’s.” Pei knew it would be a difficult task to build the new gallery, but that did not deter him. This is the story of how one of Washington's most unique buildings came to be.
It was Christmas night 1974 in Lorton Reformatory’s Maximum Security wing. Correctional Officer Lt. O.W. Larsen was keeping watch over the mess hall where around 100 inmates were finishing dinner and sitting down for a showing of “The Hong Kong Connection,” a Kung Fu movie. Suddenly Larsen felt the muzzle of a handgun pressed into his neck. Earl Coleman, serving 5 to 15 years for robbery and nicknamed “Killer,” had his finger on the trigger. As Coleman overpowered Larsen, other inmates did the same to the other guards in the hall. Within moments they had control of the room.
Dr. Michael Halberstam and his wife, Elliott, had planned to go to a movie after leaving their friends’ cocktail party, but they decided to make a quick stop back at home first. Michael parked the car and went inside the couple’s Palisades D.C. home to let out their two dogs, Iris and Jake. Elliot headed around back to meet the pups. It was about 8:45 pm – well after dark in the late fall. Moments later, the doctor was staring down the barrel of snub-nosed revolver in his own kitchen.
The odd chain of events that came next would uncover one of the largest — and strangest — crime operations in Washington, D.C. area history.
In the winter of 1969, the Washington Senators baseball club was in transition. After a flirtation with comedian Bob Hope, the team had just been sold to transportation magnate Bob Short. Short, who looked across town and saw the Washington Redskins hire legendary coach Vince Lombardi, was looking for his own splashy hire – “a storybook manager, the kind people dream about” who could be the savior he felt the franchise needed. The answer? Ted Williams.
“Now this is no easy thing — naming a sports team,” Washington Post reporter Bob Addie wrote in the spring of 1973. Naming anything can have complications: the right name is memorable, hopefully catchy, and looks good on jerseys, while a bad name becomes a joke — or worse, an embarrassment. That was why there was such surprise that Abe Pollin, who had recently become owner of the new — and still unnamed — NHL hockey team that was coming to the D.C. area was “toying with the idea of having a contest to name the baby.”
At 10:30 a.m. on October 25, 1972, two workers stepped out of a C&P Telephone van and into the Crystal City branch of the Arlington Trust Company. The bank’s phones had been down for nearly half an hour and manager Henry “Bud” Candee was eager to resume normal business. He met the repairmen in the lobby and led them to a service panel at the back of the bank. Unbeknownst to Candee, the technicians were frauds. They stole the uniforms and the van and caused the phone outage by climbing down a nearby manhole and severing the bank’s phone lines. But what was meant to be a relatively simple robbery, turned out to be the first act in one of the most dramatic — and bizarre — crime sprees in U.S. history.
According to co-founder Virginia Ali, Ben’s Chili Bowl has never been “your typical restaurant.” Unlike other diners of the 1950s, 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.