It’s almost two weeks till Christmas, and Chief Ike’s Mambo Room in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of D.C. has hung up its stockings.
There are loads of them—maybe two dozen, dangling out of arm’s reach above the cluttered bar and along an opposite wall. Each bears a name – Doug, Angela, D-Rok, Baby G – painted in glitter glue.
I ask the bar’s white-bearded owner, Allan Jirikowic ’77, interdisciplinary studies, (who has probably withstood his share of Santa Claus comparisons) about the stockings, but he would rather talk about a mural – one of many – he’s commissioned for the D.C. dive bar he’s owned for 23 years.
“You have Marion Barry riding on the Lion of Judah, next to Fidel Castro with Nixon and Elvis,” Jirikowic says, gesturing toward the painting’s characters. “And over there, Nikita Khrushchev.”
Jirikowic grew up in Silver Spring and enrolled at UMBC in 1972. He studied under Herbert Blau, the forward-thinking theater director who led the university’s arts and humanities division from 1974 to 1978. “I was about to drop out,” he says, until Blau came aboard and shook things up for him.
When Jirikowic graduated in 1976, he still didn’t know what to do. “I was in a complete quandary,” he says, chuckling. But eventually he drifted back down to the District, where as a bar owner, actor, gadfly and Falstaffian bon viveur, Jirikowic has helped build numerous institutions that have jostled the culture of the often-stodgy federal city. He has also gotten a lot of people drunk.
With his friend Bill Warrell, Jirikowic helped launch and manage the influential downtown art hub d.c. space in a part of the city still shell-shocked after the 1968 riots. The venue brought hundreds of shows to D.C., including an early performance by Laurie Anderson. But after several years at dc space, he began to wonder what was next.
So Jirikowic bartended elsewhere. Couriered. At one point, he even appraised houses. He loathed that, mostly, but it helped him understand certain cold facts of life. “It gave me an immense education about how this country really works,” he says.
In 1988, Jirikowic threw his weight behind a new enterprise: a rooftop bar in Adams Morgan that he called Krakatoa Lounge. A Washington Post feature observed that Krakatoa resembled “a high school gym that’s been decorated for a very ‘80s dance.” The bar was a success – Jirikowic guesses he sold more than 6,000 daiquiris in one season – but a short-lived one.
Subsequently Jirikowic launched more watering holes: the landmark Adams Morgan bar, Hell, and a fiesta-themed joint called Rancho Deluxe. He also made himself a fixture on local stages as an actor, involving himself in scrappy theater organizations such as Studio Theatre and the Capital Fringe Festival, which have become major forces in the D.C. arts scene.
On the cusp of the 1990s, Jirikowic leased a building on the 1700 block of Columbia Road NW, and transformed it and an abutting property into three conceptual bars: Chaos, Pandemonium, and later, Chief Ike’s, which is named after former President Eisenhower. He decorated them lavishly, some of his decor salvaged from junk yards or simply found around town. The tacky Chief Ike’s and its two upstairs bars draw a loyal (and perpetually under-35) customer base.
Often to the chagrin of his neighbors, Jirikowic has become a fierce protector of Adams Morgan bacchanalia. He favors life, liberty, art, and dance, and the business that comes with them. He’s a member of the board of the neighborhood’s business improvement district and also heads up his local citizens’ association.
“I have to be politically active to protect the interests of the right to party, for art, for the joie de vivre of the neighborhood,” he says.
After a motley career spent as the life of D.C’s art scene and its party, Jirikowic sometimes wonders if he should have done something more conventional.
“You know it’s kind of funny,” Jirikowic says. “You just do what you do, and then all of a sudden it’s what you’ve done.”
– Ally Schweitzer