Posts Tagged ‘Bill Cosby’

Two of the most well known murals in the city are located on either side of the iconic restaurant Ben’s Chili Bowl, located in northwest D.C.’s Shaw/Uptown neighborhood, next to The Lincoln Theatre, in an historic building at 1213 U Street (MAP).  The one on the east side of the building, entitled “Alchemy of Ben Ali,” depicts the restaurant founders, Ben and Virginia Ali.  But it is the other one that became controversial, leading to its removal.

In 2012, the Ali family commissioned its first mural with backing from the city’s graffiti prevention initiative, MuralsDC.  A few years later, however, public pressure to redo it started to grow as sexual assault allegations began to accumulate against one of the prominently featured people depicted in the mural – comedian Bill Cosby, who was accused and has subsequently been convicted of sexual assault.  Last year, the mural was first whitewashed, and eventually replaced.

The old mural featured local disc jockey Donnie Simpson, D.C.’s Chuck Brown – the Godfather of Go-Go, President Barack Obama, and Cosby.  Three of those men returned on the replacement mural.  Cosby, who had been a longtime friend of Ben’s, did not.

The newer mural, entitled “The Torch,” painted by D.C. muralist Aniekan Udofia, who also painted the original mural, celebrates D.C. history and black culture.  The mural depicts abolitionist and political activist Harriet Tubman holding a lantern that spreads light onto the other figures in the mural.  In addition to the three holdovers from the previous mural, those figures, who were chosen through a public voting process on the restaurant’s web site, are:  boxer and activist Muhammad Ali; former D.C. mayor-for-life Marion Barry; comedian and D.C. native Dave Chappelle; singer Roberta Flack;  comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory; actress and singer Taraji P. Henson; D.C.’s non-voting Delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton; the late singer Prince; longtime local newscaster Jim Vance; D.C. rapper Wale; local radio disc jockey Russ Parr, and; former First Lady Michelle Obama, who now accompanies her husband.

But Virginia Ali, Ben’s widow, says the decision to repaint was based on the state of the mural alone, which she contended had become so soiled, damaged and weather-beaten.  Which means, years from now the mural may need to again be replaced.  So despite not making the cut for the current mural, I still have a chance.  I’ll just have to be patient and wait.

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Original Mural

The Whitewash

The Torch

         

         

         

         

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

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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

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

Ben's Chili Bowl

Ben’s Chili Bowl

September’s end-of-the-month restaurant review is of Ben’s Chili Bowl. A D.C. landmark restaurant, it is located in northwest D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, next to The Lincoln Theatre, in an historic building at 1213 U Street (MAP).  Built in 1910, the building originally housed the city’s first silent movie house, named The Minnehaha Theater. Later, Harry Beckley, one of D.C.’s first Black police detectives, converted it into a pool hall.  A family-run business, Ben’s Chili Bowl was originally opened by Ben Ali, a Trinidadian-born immigrant who had studied dentistry at nearby Howard University, and his fiancee, Virginian-born Virginia Rollins. They were married seven weeks after opening the restaurant.  Today it is run by their sons, Kamal and Nizam.

From the unrest of the late 1960’s race riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the tough economic times in the 1970’s and 1980’s that resulted from the destruction of much of the neighborhood’s businesses during the riots, and finally to the revitalization and gentrification of the U Street Corridor beginning in the 1990’s, Ben’s has survived and seen it all. Over 50 years later, Ben’s remains as it has always been, right down to the red booths and bar stools and Formica counters, which are the original ones from when the restaurant first opened. Even Ben’s large neon “Home of the Famous Chili Dog” hearkens back to an earlier time.

Locals and tourists, as well as celebrities including Bill Cosby, Chris Tucker and Bono, and politicians such as President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have flocked to Ben’s Chili Bowl for decades for its rich history, friendly atmosphere and delicious food.  A sign at the restaurant, however, notifies patrons that only Mr. Cosby and the Obama family eat for free.

The menu at Ben’s includes the traditional hot dogs and hamburgers and fries, as well as more recently added healthier choices such as turkey dogs and vegetarian burgers. But I must confess that I have not tried any of these offerings. It seems almost wrong to go to Ben’s and not have what they are most famous for.

Ben’s namesake chili is still made according to the original recipe, and comes complete with chunks of ground beef, green peppers and onions, and is filled with spices to tantalize your taste buds. The chili is available by the bowl, as well as how I prefer it – as a condiment for the hot dogs, French fries, and just about anything else on the menu. But my recommendation is to try “Bill Cosby’s Original Chili Half-smoke.” Originally made famous by Ben’s in 1958 and a favorite of Mr. Cosby’s since the early 1960s, it is a mouth-watering and juicy half-pork and half-beef smoked sausage, topped with their spicy chili, on a warm steamed bun. It is considered not only Ben’s, but D.C.’s signature dish.

Recently, Ben’s Chili Bowl has also expanded by opening a new restaurant and bar called Ben’s Next Door, in addition to outposts at Nationals Park and FedEx Field, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and across the river in Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia. And although the food is the same, there is something about the original location that makes everything just a little bit better.  But don’t take my word for it.  You don’t even have to believe the prestigious James Beard Foundation, which named Ben’s one of the “down-home eateries that have carved out a special place on the American culinary landscape.”  I recommend that you stop by and try it for yourself.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]