After more than 30 years of restless waiting and a $29 million renovation project, the illustrious Howard Theatre is back in action.
Monday, the streets of D.C. experienced an outpouring of laughter, cheers, and jubilation as people crowded to watch the ribbon cutting to reopen the historical landmark.
Supporters including comedian/activist Dick Gregory to Mayor Vincent Gray made appearances to welcome the Howard Theatre back.
“As somebody who grew up in this city and who went to school in this city, it is absolutely wonderful to see what is taking place right now. It didn’t matter what school you went to. It didn’t matter if you went to McKinley, Cardozo, or Dunbar because everybody came to the Howard Theatre,” Gray said.
Hundreds of supportive admirers came out to show their appreciation to the Ellis Development Group for restoring and renovating the 102-year-old building, which was forced to shut down in 1980. The development company saved the 1910 building façade while rebuilding took place.
“We truly wanted to make sure that we celebrated and used the dollars of the city wisely. There were over 156 jobs for construction…and created over 85 permanent jobs through the recreation of the Theatre,” said company representative Malik Ellis.
People from all generations stood outside the theater at T Street and Georgia Avenue NW, dancing and clapping to the music of James Brown, the Temptations, Billie Holiday, and Etta James.
Since 1910, the Howard Theatre had given black entertainers such as Marvin Gaye, James Brown, and Duke Ellington a venue to showcase their talents during segregation.
Back then, the Theatre wasn’t just a venue for entertainment but also for expression, pride, and black aspirations.
D.C. natives described the feeling of the Howard Theatre as magical and resilient.
“Coming to this theatre made me feel like a queen almost. The feeling I would get when entering through the doors was unimaginable. Being that close to entertainers such as the Temptations gave me a feeling of fulfillment. Singing songs like “I’m Black and I’m Proud” with James Brown from the audience provided a peek for younger generations to put themselves back in the time of segregation of the civil rights movement. This was the home to all the black music. This was my home,” said D.C. native BettyAnn Bullard.
Legendary King Raymond Green from The Clovers said that the experience of the Howard Theatre for any black artist was the best feeling in the world.
“If you were anybody in entertainment and black you came here. This is what they called “Party City Central” back in the day. Anybody you could think of from Redd Foxx to Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, the Miracles, and all of the Motown acts came to this area and performed. So to see this being renovated and brought to its original form is a blessing. I’m so glad that somebody finally got the idea to bring this theater back because this is apart of our heritage that should have never been taken away,” Green said.
Groups like The Velons, an old-school doo-wop group, encouraged the future generation to take hold of the Howard Theatre and show that the legend still lives on.
“If it ever gets any better than it used to be, its going to be fantastic. It was unbelievable then and will without a shadow of a doubt I’m sure it will be again! If the generation to come has any problems bringing the liveliness and joy out of this theatre, we will definitely come back and help you out,” said Jimmie Falwell, a Velon Group member.
Two Velons’ hits from 1968, “Why Don’t You Write?” – a song dedicated to soldiers serving in Vietnam – and “That’s What Love Can Do,” both on the BJM label, are now collectors’ items on the oldies circuit.
Wale, Loud Pac, and Tabi Bonney were scheduled to perform Monday night. A grand opening gala concert will be held Thursday to honor the past, present, and future of the Howard Theatre with performances by Smokey Robinson, Wanda Sykes and appearances by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy.