Hundreds of people crowded outside the Howard to celebrate the rebirth of the century-old building, famed as the oldest legitimate theater aimed at a black audience. Speakers, including Mayor Vincent Gray, said the return of the theater with a Beaux Arts, neoclassical and Renaissance facade was a symbol of Washington’s own renewal after decades of decline.
“The Howard Theater is back, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a Howard Theater of the 21st century,” Gray told onlookers before a ribbon-cutting ceremony done to Washington native Duke Ellington’s signature “Take The ‘A’ Train.”
Opened in 1910, the Howard and thrived through the 1960s as the heart of a vibrant “Black Broadway” in the then-racially segregated capital’s Shaw neighborhood. Howard, which preceded New York’s famed Apollo Theater by more than 20 years, showcased top black performers, including Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, James Brown, Miles Davis and Washington native Marvin Gaye.
The Supremes made their first stage appearance there in 1962 and Ella Fitzgerald won an amateur night contest. Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, got his musical start by listening to jazz at the Howard.
James Walker, a 71-year-old retired federal worker, said he had seen many shows during the theater’s heyday, including James Brown, the Four Tops and the Supremes.
“This was it, this was the place to go,” he said. The reopening “is fabulous. It’s part of an upward drive to redo the community.”
‘D.C.’s meanest corner’
The Howard was designated a national landmark in 1974, but it was already deteriorating. The neighborhood was devastated by riots in 1968 and many residents fled the rising crime. By 1981 the Washington Post was calling its nearby intersection “D.C.’s meanest corner.”
The Howard shut down 30 years ago and slid toward ruin despite several attempts to revive it.
Rainwater pouring through the roof heavily damaged the interior, but the underlying structure was “built like a rock,” said Chip Ellis, president and chief executive of Ellis Development Group, which oversaw the rebuilding.
“This building was built to last forever,” he told the crowd. The overhaul of the theater began in 2010.
The makeover, financed through a public-private partnership, restored the building to how it looked in 1910, in part by uncovering windows that had been bricked over. The 12,000-square-foot (1,115-square-metre) interior has been stripped of its seats for a more flexible configuration. It will have room for 1,000 standing customers and up to 750 for supper-club events, and it features state-of-the-art acoustics, giant TV screens and VIP areas.
The first concert, a benefit for the theater, is on Thursday. Scheduled appearances and performances will be by Smokey Robinson, Savion Glover, Al Jarreau and Martha Reeves, among others.