Before there was the Apollo in Harlem, there was the Howard Theatre in the nation’s capital.
The nearly 102-year-old Howard officially lifts its curtain once again Thursday for a reopening gala after a $29 million renovation that began in 2010. Smokey Robinson, Savion Glover and Madeleine Peyroux will perform, along with Chaka Khan, Boyz II Men and others.
From the red carpet, actress and singer Leslie Uggams said she last came to the Howard to perform when she was 10 years old in the 1950s. She said it was part of a circuit of top-ranked black theaters and she remembers saying, “Wow!” as she walked inside.
“You played the Apollo, you played the Royal Theater in Baltimore and you played the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.,'” she said. “If you were asked to play there, that meant you had arrived.”
Comedian Dick Gregory said returning to the Howard is a reminder of an era of segregation. But the Howard welcomed black performers well before the Apollo and other places because it was in a majority black neighborhood.
“You had some acts that could work in Vegas, but you couldn’t stay in the hotels,” Gregory said. “Here, you felt like you were with family.”
Fifty years ago, Dionne Warwick performed her first album, “Don’t Make Me Over,” at the Howard. She said it has taken too long to bring the cherished venue back.
Motown records founder Berry Gordy said he remembers coming to the Howard with Smokey Robinson, and they’ve been best friends ever since. Gordy is being honored at the theater’s opening.
Robinson said he remembers being “scared to death” when he first sang at the Howard when he was about 16. He said it looks great after the restoration.
“I grew up in this theater, so I’ve had some really wonderful times here,” he said. “This was the Apollo of Washington, D.C.”
Bill Cosby joined the celebration, offering a tribute to jazz and making fun of the musicians.
“What happened to your hair, boy?” Cosby asked New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott, making fun of his hair because it was sticking up and shaved on the sides. “I’m going to tell you one thing, you better play.”
“I’m going to try,” Scott said.
When Washington’s U Street corridor was known as the “Black Broadway” in an era of segregation, the Howard was a crown jewel through the 1960s. It opened in 1910, touted as the “largest colored theater in the world.” It launched careers for Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes and Ella Fitzgerald, among others. It began to suffer, though, after the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination damaged much of the neighborhood, and competitors built newer and larger venues. The Howard closed in 1980.
By comparison, Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater first opened as a burlesque theater in 1914, and African-Americans were not allowed inside. It later reopened as the Apollo in 1934 and focused on the growing black community in Harlem.
The Howard was left neglected and shuttered since its doors were closed. It remained vacant for 30 years and fell into disrepair, its roof caving in, allowing water to destroy much of the historic interior.
Still, pieces of history remain. The stage is in the same place and size as it was when Fitzgerald won an early Amateur Night contest. So is the balcony, where audiences listened to the music of Sammy Davis Jr., Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Lena Horne, and the words of Booker T. Washington, Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley. Some of the columns holding up the balcony have been preserved, and the original exterior facade has been restored.
The theater’s new operators, from the New York-based Blue Note Entertainment Group, said they were compelled to take on the Howard after hearing encouragement from Bill Cosby and other entertainers who remember the theater’s heyday.
“It’s important for the city of D.C., but it’s also important for the history of music to get the Howard back up,” said Steven Bensusan, Blue Note’s president.
The new Howard is a modern, high-tech performance space with HD video screens, an acoustic system and recording capabilities. It has supper club-style seating for 650 or standing room space for 1,100, making it a flexible venue to host a variety of concerts and events. It’s finished with black walnut walls, oak floors and granite bars to accommodate full-service dining.
Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson of Harlem’s Red Rooster and a winner of “Top Chef Masters” has created a menu for Southern-style dinners and a weekly gospel brunch on Sundays featuring the Harlem Gospel Choir.
Having a full-service kitchen and a flexible space will set the Howard apart from many other historic theaters across the country that have been restored only to struggle financially within a few years to keep the doors open. One example is a few blocks away at Washington’s 1920s-era Lincoln Theatre, which also boasts a rich history with Washington’s jazz scene.
“A lot of the theaters have been restored to the way they were. That doesn’t necessarily work in today’s modern world,” Bensusan said, explaining why traditional theater seats were nixed for the Howard. “There’s a market for theaters and there’s a market for almost like a club environment, which is what we’ve created at the Howard.”
Blue Note Entertainment has a 20-year lease to operate the theater, promising top names from all genres of music. Its first months’ bookings include performances by Wanda Sykes, The Roots, Chuck Berry and Sinead O’Connor, among others. The company also operates the Blue Note jazz club in New York’s Greenwich Village and the B.B. King Blues Club in Times Square, along with clubs in Japan and Italy.
The Howard was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and was named an “American Treasure” as part of the Save America’s Treasures program under President Bill Clinton.
Nearby Howard University is not affiliated with the theater, though they share the same namesake. Union Gen. Oliver Otis Howard was the school’s founder.