The crowd of people who gathered at the Howard Theatre’s re-opening night gala indulged in a little retro glam and opulence for the evening, with details befitting a scene from “Harlem Nights.” After all, the grand re-opening of the theatre, whose doors had been shuttered and appeared nearly forgotten for 30 years, encouraged an extra curl or two, a carefully applied red lip, flowery chiffon, gilded gowns, cummerbunds over crisp, white shirts, tuxedos and bow ties that froze in place.
Last Thursday’s energy may well have rivaled, if not eclipsed, that of its neighbor Howard University and its epic homecomings. And though the two are not affiliated outside of a shared name, neighborhood and communal respect, the giddiness and affinity were kindred.
Except instead of alumni reminiscing at their former campus haunts, think celebrities returning to their old stomping grounds to pay homage to the birthplace of their careers, with unabashed grins and nonplussed by the chill of windy 60-degree evening temperatures.
Sure, Howard University President Sidney A. Ribeau and his wife, Paula Whetsel-Ribeau, especially jazzy in a black strapless number, mingled among the famous and not-so-famous. And never mind the smartly dressed politicians and well-heeled D.C. notables emerging from black Lincoln town cars; or the young women trekking to near the corner of 7th and T Streets, N.W. from Shaw/Howard Metro down Georgia Avenue in spaghetti-strapped, floor-length sequined gowns, careful to make sure their hems never grazed the ground until they reached the gala’s purple carpet entrance.
All airs were dropped and the gathering was infused with gushing college reunion-like chatter, embraces and an urge to make up for lost time. There was media maven Cathy Hughes outfitted in a svelte sequined tuxedo jacket excitedly, chatting about the theatre’s revival. Susan Taylor, former editor of Essence magazine, was all smiles with her signature cornrows. And singer Raheem DeVaughn, 37, was wide-eyed behind his black-framed hipster glasses, humbled to perform before luminaries twice his age.
“The Howard Theatre was to D.C. what the Apollo Theater is to New York,” explained Hughes. “It was the chitlin’ circuit where artists got their start.”
This night belonged to those who had graced the stage in the theatre’s first incarnation. Housed in U Street’s “Black Broadway” corridor, the first theatre for Black patrons and performers opened its doors in 1910. The NAACP was founded just a year earlier, largely to oppose lynching and fight for equal treatment. What later became known as the National Urban League traces its roots to the same year curtains first ascended in the Howard Theatre, hailed as “the largest colored theatre in the world.”
It was a period of rigid segregation, a time when Blacks were unwelcomed at White theaters but Whites weren’t turned away from the Howard. It predated Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Chicago’s Regal Theater and Baltimore’s Royal Theater. It launched the careers of Marvin Gaye, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, the Supremes, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dizzie Gillespie, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley and too many others to name.
And that’s why so many stars were willing to return for its rebirth.
The night belonged to Dionne Warwick, striking in her carefully coiffed tresses, a little more golden than her usual copper. Wrapped in a luxurious fur-collared coat, the legendary singer recalls in her rich vibrato the days when she performed on this very stage, and her delight in its restoration.
“It’s wonderful and is much-needed here in D.C.” she said. “I performed here many years ago, and this is a complete turnaround from how the theater ended up after it closed.”
Hosts Bill Cosby, Wanda Sykes and Dick Gregory added to the intergenerational presence, not to mention humor. On stage, Cosby teased Howard University’s Afro Blue, a mixed-vocal ensemble, in between selections that Heathcliff and Clair surely would have glided across their living room to after another successful day of imparting life lessons to the kids.
It took six years – and $29 million – to get to such a point, however. In 2006, Roy “Chip” Ellis of the Ellis Development Group, spearheaded the restoration project by securing the redevelopment contract and piecing together financing and buy-in support from the D.C. government, grants, donations and a partnership with Blue Note Entertainment Group, the theatre’s New York-based operator under a 20-year lease.
In 2002, the Howard Theater landed on the D.C. Preservation League’s list of the District’s Most Endangered Places. It achieved National Landmark status in 1974, just a few years after the 1968 rebellions that ravaged the U Street corridor in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, and a few years before it closed its doors in the early 80s. Thanks to the persistence of Ellis, ground was broken in 2010, a step that paved the way for the glamorous re-opening.
It is now a lovely mixture of old and new.
The stage, balcony and some of the columns have been preserved, and the exterior has also been restored. But the 12,000-square-foot space now includes a restaurant with a menu created by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, HD video screens, private party spaces in the balcony, and cabaret-style seating for 650, replacing the rows upon rows of seats.
And no, nightlife entrepreneur Marc Barnes didn’t attend to the details of the warmly-lit interior, sleek walnut paneling and oak floors, polished granite surfaces and supple leather seating. That credit goes to D.C.-based architectural firm Marshall Moya Design.
Fittingly, Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson arrived together, praising each other, marveling at the building’s extreme makeover and taking a stroll down Memory Lane.
“I grew up in this theatre,” said Robinson, who performed at the Howard at the ripe old age of 16. “It’s going to provide quality entertainment for the people of Washington, D.C. like it used to when I was a kid.”
Gordy, who was given the Howard Theatre Living Legend Award, also fondly recalled the early days.
“This is where we got our breaks and our confidence and all that, from the people of Washington,” he remembered. “The Howard Theatre is where we always wanted to come because the audience always made us feel like we were somebody.”