The Howard Theater

The Howard Theater

The Howard Theatre, which is located at 620 T Street (MAP) in the U Street Corridor of northwest D.C.’s historic Shaw/Uptown neighborhood, is an entertainment venue with a storied history of highs and lows since opening over a century ago. And that is the reason I decided to make it my destination on this lunchtime outing.

The Howard originally had a capacity of more than 1,200, and featured orchestra and balcony seats and eight private boxes, with a lavishly decorated interior. And the theater’s original exterior matched its lavish interior, combining architectural elements of the Beaux-Arts, Italian Renaissance, and neoclassical styles. However, it lost its original ornate facade in 1941 when it was redone in the then-fashionable Streamline style. And it has been reduced in size over the years, currently being able to seat only half of its original capacity.

After its initial opening in 1910, The Howard became known for its variety of acts, including vaudeville performers, plays, and even circuses. However, despite its early success which lasted through the 1920’s, the Howard was forced to close down at the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.

The building became a church for a short time, but was was able to reopen a couple of years later under new management, and this time became a venue devoted to discovering and hiring only the best in black talent. Though The Howard did not discover, Duke Ellington, a native Washingtonian, it was responsible for launching many other careers, such as Ella Fitzgerald’s. The astounding success of The Howard resonated throughout the East Coast as it energized the debuts of other black owned theaters, such as The Apollo in Harlem, The Uptown in Philadelphia, and The Royal in Baltimore, or, what was known at the time as The “Chitlin’ Circuit.”

Over the next couple of decades, many notable Jazz performers headlined at The Howard, including Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, Nat King Cole, “Moms” Mabley, and hometown favorite Duke Ellington, bringing along with them an unparalleled level of fame and prestige to The Howard. Other types of performers were intermittently mixed in with these acts during this time. These acts included performers like Danny Kaye, Abbott and Costello and Cesar Romero, as well as Pearl Bailey, who made her debut at the Howard.

Then in the 1950s and 60s, The Howard became a venue for rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues, including such artists as Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis, Jr., James Brown, Lena Horne, Lionel Hampton, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, and Marvin Gaye, to name but a few.

After the riots which followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, coupled with societal changes brought about by desegregation, brought about unrest and disturbances which served to debilitate the area, drive out many locals, and eventually cause degradation of the once vibrant neighborhood. This made it difficult for The Howard to attract patrons, and in 1970 it was forced to close down once again.

Many attempts were made to revive The Howard in the years that followed. One attempt occurred in 1975, and attracted many stars and received significant publicity, both from the audience and performers. Acts such as Redd Foxx and Melba Moore were among those featured at the reopening. Later in the decade, Go-Go bands played the venue, including the Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown, another native Washingtonian, along with The Soul Searchers, also performed at The Howard. Despite this success, this run lasted only five years. The venue failed to regain its former glory or financial viability, and closed down once again in 1980.

Most recently the theater, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was reopened after a 32-year hiatus and a $29 million multi-year renovation project. After being listed by the D.C. Preservation League as one of its Most Endangered Places in the city in 2002, groundbreaking for extensive renovations of the theater was held a couple of years later, and The Howard finally reopened in 2012 with a grand re-opening gala and benefit concert hosted by Bill Cosby and Wanda Sykes.

Today the reopened theater honors the glory of the past while ushering in an exciting future. Through the addition of state-of-the-art acoustics, and video and recording capabilities, The Howard is able to retain the intimate feel of its classic space for traditional audiences, while expanding to include new digital-age audiences as well. It is open six days a week, year-round, with dining amenities

HowardTheater03     HowardTheater02
[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

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