If, as the adage goes, changes blow in the wind, then with a few snips, lots of smiles and the applause from well-wishers, endless opportunities will abound for the historic Howard Theatre on Monday with a ribbon-cutting that starts a week of celebrations.
The Howard was the spot to be seen and be heard when its doors swung open in August 1910 as America’s first full-sized playhouse for blacks.
After Monday’s ribbon-cutting and remarks by D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray come the performers, who run the music and spoken-word gamut — from the soulful Smokey Robinson and vocalist extraordinaire Al Jarreau to jazzy Les McCann and Joe Sample to wordsmith Dick Gregory and the artist formerly known as Mos Def.
But wait for it, wait for it — and Wanda Sykes, Berry Gordy, Bill Cosby, tap man Savion Glover, Lalah Hathaway, Bobby Parker, Donnie Simpson and, tada, music director George Duke will be here, too.
And that’s only the half of it, as the Howard is booked months in advance, thanks to Steve Bensusan and his Blue Note Entertainment, which is managing operations, and an enticing soul-influenced food-and-beverage menu and Sunday brunch curated by the Marcus Samuelsson Group of Harlem’s Red Rooster fame awaits.
Back to the future
Although the U Street corridor ain’t what it used to be, thank heavens it appears to be on its way to what it can be.
The glory days of the Howard Theatre are as legion as its fits, starts and restarts.
The theater is named for Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, the Civil War hero who later ran the Freedmen’s Bureau and served as founding president of Howard University. The theater opened a year after his death.
The playbills reflected the signs of the times — vaudeville acts, clowns, singers and dancers, and “moving pictures.” (That’s right, young people; that’s what movies were called back then.) And when the Howard fell on financial hard times, it even became home to church services to fill seats and avoid bankruptcy, then was restructured to give audiences what they wanted by being on the forefront of the Big Band Era, with native son Duke Ellington and other performers whose first names are legendary — Count, Cab, Dizzy, Woody, Pearl, Sarah, Nat and Sammy.
Back then, the Howard was a must-stop on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” so called because segregated audiences were the norm in the North and in the South. Other black venues along the East Coast included Baltimore’s Royal Theatre, Richmond’s Hippodrome and the Uptown in Philadelphia.
But even then, competition wasn’t so much the other clubs and theaters as it was another change the wind blew in — the civil rights movement and integration.
As Berry Gordon’s Hitsville turned into the prolific, chart-topping Motown, cultural change swept in with the devastating riots of 1968, which tore U Street, the heart and soul of the area, from black D.C. residents.
While a few black mainstays managed to carry on (such as Lee’s flowers and Ben’s Chili Bowl), and the Lincoln Theatre still struggles, the Howard was practically silenced.
A brighter day
Mr. Cosby, a U Street visitor since his Navy days, told me in 2010, after the groundbreaking for the theater, that the new Howard must acknowledge the new whirling winds of opportunity, citing Ben’s as an example.
“Its clientele and neighborhood changed,” said Mr. Cosby, co-emcee at the Howard on Thursday. “Ben’s has not changed.”
In other words, give the diverse people the diversity they want.
“I am excited about this [Howard re-opening]; super, super excited, because of not only the historical aspects, but the human aspects, because people got to see this as a place to go and meet real people,” he said, “because they got to see the people who made 78 [rpm] records and 45s. Some were huge stars; some weren’t.”
He also said the survival of the Howard depends on eclectic bookings and not merely relying on the nostalgic reflections of the “good ol’ days.”
And it appears Mr. Bensusan is doing just that, with the likes of comedian Ms. Sykes, singer Chaka Khan and Irish singer Sinead O’Connor.
In fact, Miss O’Connor is an outright superstar now, but her easily recognizable talents had just begun to fall on the ears of worldwide fans when the D.C. government bought the Howard Theatre in 1986 after Marion Barry, then the city’s mayor, built the Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U streets to spur development along the corridor.
Yep. The ghosts of U Street past are probably pleased that the Howard no longer smells of urine, no longer looks like a dump and no longer has a black-owned “motel” as a neighbor where performers left sheets flapping from the windows to signal that they had moved on to another stop on the circuit.
These days, the corridor is a mix of whites and blacks with disposable income, Ethiopian and American fare, sports spots and music spots.
Sure, the good ol’ reliables such as Ben’s and Lee’s are still there, but the “jewel in the crown,” as Mr. Cosby calls it, can’t be what it used to be.
It’s still a throwback to decades gone by, but the statue of Duke Ellington that glistens in the sun and the magnificent seating and dining areas are a testimony to the fact that, with earnest determination, enough money (tax money included) and vision (especially that of Mr. Bensusan and Mr. Samuelsson) even an inanimate object such as the Howard Theatre has a soul worthy of resurrection.
Mr. Cosby said he never performed at the Howard, but he and the others who will take the stage this week have much resting on their shoulders for future generations.
May they help swing wide the doors of possibility.
• Deborah Simmons can be reached at email@example.com.
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