In D.C., A Bastion Of Black Entertainment Returns | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
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In D.C., A Bastion Of Black Entertainment Returns

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It was 1910. Howard Taft was president, the Boy Scouts of America came into being and in Washington, D.C., the Howard Theatre opened its doors, ushering in a new era of black culture and entertainment.

The Howard was the country's first large music venue for black audiences, the center of what was known as "Black Broadway," and played host to the likes of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and some of Motown's biggest acts.

One of those acts, The Supremes, made their debut at Howard Theatre in 1962, their first performance outside their hometown of Detroit.

"It was always full, and the screaming — I mean, you've seen the audiences at the Apollo — it was that kind of audience at the Howard," says Supremes founding member Mary Wilson. "It was always packed."

But the Howard went dark in the 1970s. The riots following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were bad for business. The neighborhood changed, and many of the performers who once called the Howard home took their acts to other stages.

In the decades that followed, the theater underwent partial renovations and short-lived reopenings, but for most of the past 30 years, it has sat empty: a dilapidated old building bearing no sign of its former glory.

Many people have been involved in bringing the Howard back to life. Developer Chip Ellis, a fourth-generation Washingtonian and president of the Ellis Development Group, is one of them.

"We wanted to speak to the real rich history of the Howard," Ellis says, standing outside the theater on 7th and T Streets, NW. "It's been dormant for 30 years and so the history has gone dormant along with it. We thought it was really important that people see, from the outside, the oldest major theater for African-Americans in the country. And so all the detail you see here is an exact replica of the 1910 facade."

After six years and $29 million, the Howard is back. The theater has a stucco facade, accentuated by white brick detailing over the windows. The entryway is flanked by white Corinthian columns, and above the doors a black metal marquee displays the theater's name.

Ellis grew up in the neighborhood, so for him, renovating the Howard was personal.

"My father used to tell me stories about Lionel Hampton playing 'Flying Home,'" Ellis says. "People would just go crazy and jump off the balcony and onto the stage and start dancing and stuff."

Though the outside of the theater is an homage to an earlier time, the inside is modern. The Brazilian marble lobby is surrounded by glass doors and HD screens; the walls are wrapped in black walnut. Two oversized black-and-white images of Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong frame the ticket window.

"The Billie Holiday picture just speaks everything about jazz music, and everything about the era and the history," Ellis says. "She was one of the ones that started out here. She came from Baltimore, and she was a regular here at the Howard Theatre."

Bernard Demczuk, a professor of African-American history at George Washington University, has also been involved with the theater's redevelopment.

"We often forget this was a venue for oratory,"Demczuk says. "So Booker T. Washington spoke here. W.E.B. Dubois spoke here. The Howard Theatre was not just a doo-wop and a soul and a rock 'n' roll venue.

"Let me be clear," he adds, "it was not just for black people. The other term for the Howard was the People's Theater. And the People's Theater means that it really was open for everybody."

Wilson of The Supremes was barely out of her teens when she, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard began performing at the Howard.

"Mrs. Ross, who was Diane's mom, she would always chaperone," Wilson says. "This one particular week, when we were there and Jackie Wilson was the star, she asked Jackie Wilson if he would baby-sit for us. He said, 'Oh sure, Mrs. Ross, I'll look after the girls.' ... We had so much fun performing there."

The Howard Theatre is getting fitted with final touches: The lights are being tested out, the floors are getting scrubbed, the chairs are being set. This week, the old building at 7th and T will become the People's Theater once again.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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