Murder, Disco & Democrats on Baltimore Ave.

September 5, 2013 |  by  |  Vantage  |  , ,

 

Photo: Peter Woodall

Photo: Peter Woodall

Though it takes up a considerable part of the 5500 block of Baltimore Avenue in Cobbs Creek, it isn’t hard to miss the Ambassador Theater. Now the warehouse and shop floor of a printing operation, the facade’s modern awning and garage style doors hardly suggest “movie palace.” However, a closer look reveals hints of the neoclassical excess that defined cinemas of the Jazz Age.

Ambassador50s

Designed by Philadelphia architect Harvey Childs Hodgens, the 1,000 seat Ambassador opened in 1921. In the early years a massive 90 foot electric roof sign shone above the center marquee, ensuring the rapidly developing area surrounding Baltimore Avenue was drawn to the theater. The ornamental arches and decorative urns that once divided the space between the roof and marquee stand a lone testament to building’s once grand entryway. The limestone framed display boards remain on the east and west ends of the building, as do the small stain glass arches embezzled with the name “Ambassador.” On nights when the printers work late, the interior lighting showcases the windows to passersby. In an earlier era, these provided the only natural light to the second floor standing balconies.

Click any thumbnail to launch gallery

In the 1920’s, The Ambassador was owned by Frederick G Nixon-Nirdlinger, a former vaudeville agent who became one of the wealthiest theater managers in Philadelphia. At one point he ran both the Academy of Music and its rival to the north, the Metropolitan Opera House.

Photo: Bart Everts

Photo: Bart Everts

Nixon-Nirdlinger’s dominance of the Philadelphia theater market ended on his honeymoon. After marrying in Philadelphia, Nixon-Nirdlinger and his wife (his 4th) went to Nice. Upon arriving in France the couple got into an argument which ended with the theater magnate dead and his bride, Charlotte Nash, on trial for murder in Paris. The killing garnered international headlines throughout the spring and summer of 1931, ending with Nash’s acquittal. The French jury found ample evidence she acted in self-defense.

Following Nixon-Nirdlinger’s untimely death, The Ambassador carried on as a first and second run cinema until its movie days ended for good in 1958. Subsequent owners tried to revive the theater as a rock club and later as a disco, but by 1980 The Ambassador was abandoned and its marquee removed to prevent it from falling down on its own. The Ambassador likely would have been demolished had the adjacent printing business not outgrown their space.

Former main floor of the Ambassador's auditorium | Photo: Peter Woodall

Former main floor of the Ambassador’s auditorium | Photo: Peter Woodall

Brothers John and Jim Kennedy founded Kennedy Printing in the late 1950’s. Since then the business has created campaign paraphernalia for almost every Democratic mayoral candidate of the last 50 years, as well as for national heavyweights Bill Clinton, John Kerry, and some of those “other” Kennedys.

Photo: Peter Woodall

Photo: Peter Woodall

The printer’s move into the Ambassador in the 1990’s stabilized the structure but also saw the loss of some original features (including the sloping floor) to accommodate the myriad of printing presses used by the operation. Still, many of the interior features which survived the disco era (in which the seats were removed and the stage replaced) remain.

Two iron fan grates adorn the ceiling, indicative of the pre-air conditioned world the theater opened in. Attached to one of the grates is an object covered in canvas, possibly a disco ball from the 1970’s. The original fireproof door opens to the projection room, and many of the decorative reliefs remain on the walls of the upper floor. In addition, you couldn’t lay claim to a proper 1920’s movie palace without a grand curtain, and the Ambassador’s orange flourished example is in markedly good shape.

In contrast to many theaters now demolished or abandoned, the Ambassador had the fortune of merging its history with a long established community business. Perhaps this shows how practical adaptation can preserve sparks of the past, even if they no longer fall from a 90 foot electric sign.

About the author

Bart Everts is a librarian at Peirce College. He has a B.A. in HIstory from Rutgers University and earned a Master’s in Library and Information Science from Simmons College. A native of Collingswood, he lives in the Spruce Hill section of West Philadelphia.



2 Comments


  1. \”Nerdlinger\” is my new favorite insult!

Recent Posts
Bid Process Reveals Uncertain Future For Delaware Power Station

Bid Process Reveals Uncertain Future For Delaware Power Station

October 30, 2014  |  Developing Challenges, News

Bids for purchase and redevelopment of the Delaware Power Station are due Monday at 5PM. What will they tell us about the monumental building's future? Ryan Briggs talks to some experts and considers the future of this part of the Delaware waterfront > more

The Case For Logan Square

The Case For Logan Square

October 30, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Why the current thinking about the Parkway’s transformation needs to be more ambitious, development anxiety in Powelton Village, Brickstone’s latest acquistions in Midtown, and Councilwoman gets her district office > more

Saying Goodbye To Stokes House

Saying Goodbye To Stokes House

October 29, 2014  |  News

The end is near for the Stokes house of Holme Circle. Despite efforts by a local civic association to save the 19th century stone farmhouse at 2976 Welsh Road, it will be razed any day now for new residential development. Hidden City co-editor Michael Bixler took a trip out to Holmesburg to bid the building a fond farewell > more

Getting A Pedestrian-Driven Main Street Right In Center City

Getting A Pedestrian-Driven Main Street Right In Center City

October 29, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Chestnut Walk as a new kind of Center City street, the multiplying effects of pop-up gardens, Penn to break ground on South Bank, and angry parents unleash on Walter Palmer > more

City For Families? Millennial Parents Say So

City For Families? Millennial Parents Say So

October 28, 2014  |  Vantage

If schools are a key to retaining families, what is Philadelphia to do? Quite a lot, says David Feldman, who takes us inside the parent and community-led movement to invest in ten public elementary schools > more

Philadelphia To Have Bus Shelters Replaced, Expanded

Philadelphia To Have Bus Shelters Replaced, Expanded

October 28, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Titan inks $52 million advertising deal with City, officials irked at Council’s unwillingness to sell PGW, a look back at Devil’s Pocket, and the resolve of one North Philly church to resist Temple U's encroachment > more