D.c.'s Howard Theatre Gets A New Lease On Life (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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D.C.'s Howard Theatre Gets A New Lease On Life

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
But first, we head to Northwest D.C., right near the corner of 7th and T to explore the rebirth of a historic landmark. Should I be wearing a hard hat?

MR. CHIP ELLIS

00:00:12
Yes.

SHEIR

00:00:12
Okay, I thought so. Can I adjust this?

ELLIS

00:00:15
Sure, I'll help you out.

SHEIR

00:00:16
The headphones, yeah, my head is kind of large.

ELLIS

00:00:19
Not as large as mine. I've got the biggest head...

SHEIR

00:00:20
I'm just the reporter.

ELLIS

00:00:22
...of all you all.

SHEIR

00:00:23
Developer Chip Ellis is, of course, joking, but the Washington native does have a big role in the construction project we're visiting today. The restoration of the Howard Theatre, originally erected more than a century ago.

ELLIS

00:00:34
At its time in 1910, it was the largest theater in the world for African Americans. It's the first major theater built for African Americans. The Apollo was not built for African Americans, the Howard was.

SHEIR

00:00:45
And now, the Howard is being rebuilt after 30 odd years of neglect. Ellis development has been heading the $29 million renovation. The team is introducing new things like supper club style seating and state of the art acoustics and bringing back old ones like the original neoclassical façade which got stucco-ed over art deco style just before World War II.

ELLIS

00:01:06
So we wanted to really reflect on just how rich the history was by going back to that 1910 façade and then as you enter into the building, you'd be stepping into the future.

SHEIR

00:01:17
Well, shall we go inside?

MR. MICHAEL MARSHALL

00:01:18
Absolutely.

SHEIR

00:01:19
All right. That there is our other guide today, native Washingtonian Michael Marshall, an architect with Marshall Moya Design. As we scoot around the sanders, ladders and drills scattered about the two-tiered walnut panel theater. This is stunning and noisy. Both Marshall and Ellis say this jumble is nothing compared with the utter disaster they encountered when they started the project five years ago.

MARSHALL

00:01:42
There was debris everywhere. There were birds and the pigeons were inside.

ELLIS

00:01:47
We were very, very fearful that the roof would cave in before we could actually strip out everything out of the Howard that had already been completely just destroyed through water damage and everything else. So we caught the Howard right before its collapse, literally.

SHEIR

00:02:01
But here's the thing, because so much had been destroyed, as Marshall points out, the team didn't have lots to work with to help them replicate original details.

MARSHALL

00:02:10
And there were so few pictures of the inside of the Howard that it was hard to tell, except for on the exterior, there were things. But even there, we don't know the exact color.

SHEIR

00:02:20
So they came up with another way to make the theaters past come alive, throughout the building you'll see these huge light box images of luminaries who've graced the Howard stage. I love the idea of all these images you see throughout, all of these stars who have been here.

MARSHALL

00:02:33
Yes. It's our way of bringing the history back without replicating architectural details but bringing the spirit of the people who were here.

SHEIR

00:02:40
Like, Louis Armstrong and Billy Holiday, in the lobby.

MARSHALL

00:02:43
B.B. King playing his guitar and James Brown holding a mic at the bar on the first floor.

SHEIR

00:02:49
And at the bar on the second floor.

MARSHALL

00:02:50
They'll be big images of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis.

SHEIR

00:02:55
Plus someone whose career began at the Howard during amateur night and perhaps her name might ring a few bells.

ELLIS

00:03:01
Ella Fitzgerald was found here before she went up to the Apollo and did the amateur show there.

SHEIR

00:03:07
You heard Chip Ellis right, Lady Ella, the first lady of song got her start at the Howard, as did the whole concept of amateur night, actually, back in 1931, thanks to theater manager, Shep Allen.

ELLIS

00:03:19
And then it later went up to New York in 1935 when the Apollo opened up for African Americans in Harlem. But before that time, Billy Eckstine, Dr. Billy Taylor, the Clovers, Marvin Gaye when he was with his doo-wop group, he was first found and won the amateur night there and then he decided to go solo.

SHEIR

00:03:36
So, yes, the Howard Theater has been quite the breeding ground for musicians. And in its early days, it was a hot bed for actors, too.

ELLIS

00:03:43
The actual Howard players from Howard University did Shakespearian plays and we actually have some photographs from the Howard players in their actual costumes from those days.

SHEIR

00:03:52
And these photographs are among the items Chip Ellis hopes visitors will be able to see soon. He and his team need another $5 million to build the Howard Theater Culture and Education Center, which they've designed to include a museum.

ELLIS

00:04:04
Classrooms, a listening library, recording studio so that people can learn about the history of the Howard Theatre but also educate young people in classical Jazz and grooming the next great artist of tomorrow so that they can perform on the Howard stage one day.

SHEIR

00:04:19
In the meantime, they're gearing up to reopen the Howard's doors next month with a grand opening gala and benefit concert. The event will include a bunch of performances and awards as well as a tribute to the late co-founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun. Legend has it, the longtime Howard patron once remarked that he'd received his true education in music in a very particular place, sitting in the dark behind a neoclassical turned art deco façade, right there on 7th and T.

SHEIR

00:04:53
To learn more about the Howard Theatre and how you can contribute your own Howard memorabilia to the museum, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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