The Performing Arts
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|Chris Simkins||April 29th 2012|
The Howard Theater, a Washington, DC landmark, is reborn.
Some of the greatest African-American entertainers—including Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington—have performed at the Howard Theater. Some of them even launched their careers there. However, by 1980, The Howard, which is located in a traditionally African-American neighborhood, had fallen into disrepair and was set to be torn down.
But the arts community joined forces to save the building and restore it to its previous grandeur, and now the sound of music once again fills the historic venue, which has played—and continues to play—a big part in black history.
Built in 1910, it was the largest theater in the world for African-American entertainers and audiences. In the 1930s, Washington-born composer and big-band leader Duke Ellington made his mark at the Howard. Black artists like Diane Ross and the Supremes also graced its stage. Grammy award winning singer Marvin Gaye was discovered here.
Smokey Robinson was a teenager when he first performed at the Howard. He and other black musicians came back to celebrate the theater’s revival. “I grew up in this theater and it was a mainstay,” said Robinson. “We use[d] to bring the Motown reviews here. So we had a great deal of fun in this theater, and I am very happy that they opened it again.”
Broadway actress and singer Leslie Uggams also came to celebrate. “In these kinds of theaters you really had to make your mark because the audiences took no prisoners [were very critical] so you better know your stuff,” said Uggams. “Plus, for me what was great about it is that everything I do on Broadway right now—and I do eight shows a week—I learned from playing in theaters like this.”
For decades, the Howard Theater hosted vaudeville acts, plays, musicals and local talent shows. It was called “Black Broadway.” In a time of racial segregation, African Americans could only perform in certain venues.
Leatha Blount lived two blocks away from The Howard. It was also a social destination for her. “It was a ball,” she said. “This was the black Harlem [like in New York]. We use to dance in the streets, dance in the show in the theater and have fun.”
But during the 1968 race riots, the theater was looted. It reopened in 1975 as a national historic landmark—but only for a short time. For 30 years, it sat empty and in total disrepair.
Two years ago, a massive renovation was launched aimed at restoring the theater’s glory. Now, the interior is state of the art with contemporary lighting, video screens, and a cabaret feel. At the ribbon cutting, the consensus was that the project was a huge success.
April and Edward Ellington came to see the theater where their father, Duke, thrilled audiences. “They have done a magnificent job [in the renovation] and I know our dad is looking down smiling,” said Edward Ellington.
Steven Bensusan, president of Blue Note Entertainment, said the goal is to make the Howard Theater a DC companion of the Blue Note, the famous New York jazz club. “This is something we're looking forward to doing, promoting new musicians and helping spread the word that we're making the Howard Theater for the 21st century,” said Bensusan.
Now that this grand theater has reopened for business, the people who run the Howard Theatre say it will continue to be a Mecca for African American entertainers for generations to come.
Chris Simkins writes for the VOA News, from which this article is adapted.