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Encore: A year after reopening, Howard Theatre brings glitz, glam back to Shaw

By Christine Smitz
On July 2, 2013

  • The revitalized Howard Theatre now caters to a diverse District community. Robert Eubanks/Staff Photographer

The statue of the legendary Duke Ellington stands perched on the roof, like a musical gargoyle protecting all that is divinely creative inside the renovated Howard Theater. He seems to be ushering in only the greatest of the great performers with his sailing notes, leading a symphony through several blocks at Florida Avenue and Chuck Brown Way.

 The archway of its entrance is bold, commemorated by Gatsby architecture, both classic and modern at the same time, rich in every façade of construction. Inside, a velvety blue glow emanates from the theater's circular stage where musical giants have graced eager and awaiting audiences since 1910. The theater-style seats are accompanied with tables for the bevy of refreshments from the bar.
 What was once called the "Greatest Negro Theater in the World" has been reborn, but its audiences are diverse, mirroring the changing demographics of the former.
Welcome to Howard Theater. Celebrating its 1-year anniversary, the Howard was home to voices like Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye the stage now transcends to Wale, Brian McKnight, gospel choirs and bevies of local artists and music and entertainment fans.
"We were kids, you know, and the performers were all in their 20s," said Barbara J. Williams, a mental health social worker. "... We snuck in there to see them - James Brown, the Temptations, the Cadillacs, Smoky Robinson. All of the old timers because I'm from the 60s and we loved our music."
Undeniably, Chocolate City's first and only all-Black theater was the place to go to see any notable Black artist of its heyday. With a majority population 54% in the District, rainbows of brown hues would linger outside the theatre's double doors to catch a show.
"This whole area was filled with Black people, Black businesses, Black families, Black everything. The Howard Theatre captured all of that and gave us a stage to showcase us."
With the revitalization of the community and neighborhood around the Howard, however, the theater has expanded its typically all-Black showcase to include a diverse spectrum of performers, artists and talent to appease the growing and varied audience of the District, Maryland and Virginia.
Nowadays, 12,000-square feet of revitalized space host upwards of 1,700 patrons. Nights are bursting with tunes from rock artists, to hip-hop, to punk and back again to soul/R&B performers.
Among some of the most noteworthy performances are the dedicated tribute concerts to superstars of the past, including Michael Jackson, Prince, and Deadmau5. Recently, go-go music fans celebrated the life and times of Go-Go legend and D.C native Chuck Brown with a concert featuring the Chuck Brown Tribute Band, in what fans hope to be an annual salute to the "father of Go-Go." Presently, Howard Theater and Essence Dental Care have sponsored Wind Me Up, Chuck! Mondays at the theater to showcase even more of Brown's honored musical work.
Like most everything else in the neighborhood, The Howard suffered several traumatizing blows in the early 1970s from economic, societal and racial tensions, leading to its decline. For over 30 years its doors remained shuttered.
"When we first walked in, wow ­ it was just dark, damp, everything was broken," said Jason Coles a Howard alumnus who worked on the renovations. "... There were rats, everything cracked. It was a real abandoned building that hadn't been opened for decades. Nevertheless, the prestige underneath the muck and mire came through."
In 2005, Coles, as part of Ellis Development and the Howard Theatre Restoration, Inc., a nonprofit historical organization, invested $29 million restore the theatre and rejuvenate the entire block of Georgia Ave. between T and S streets, NW, transforming the vacant space behind the Howard- Shaw metro line into a mixed-use office and retail building. The developers invested $29-million into the rejuvenation project which includes a brand new building with the United Negro College Fund as a tenant.
"Like in the rest of D.C., the demographics around the Howard Theater have changed a lot." Williams contends, "But at the end of the day, everyone, Black and White, young and old, can appreciate the theater and its neighborhood. ... People are getting their pride back." 

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