A $1.4 million scheduled capital improvement project for the Lincoln Theatre was announced by DC Mayor Vincent Gray on Dec. 20. This follows several other major changes including dismantling its community-based board. In October, it was announced that the theatre was strapped for revenue, the city refused to put money into the existing design and the doors would close in December. Many of its board members resigned in November.
The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) will begin oversight of the Lincoln Theatre on Jan. 1, 2012. For the past 18 years, the U Street Theatre Foundation (USTF), a community-based board has been responsible for the management of the historic theatre.
The mayor made the announcement in the lobby of the financially-ailing theatre while flanked by Victor Hoskins Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, and members of the District of Columbia Commission for the Arts Humanities (DCCAH) Humanities and representatives of the Kennedy Center.
“Creating a long-term sustainable structure for the management and operations of the theatre is one of the District’s highest priorities,” said Gray. “Though the District has always stepped in to assist the theater when financial needs arose, we recognize the need for a different approach in order to put the theater on the path back to long-term fiscal health.”
DCCAH has already been hard at work researching the best practices on how to create a sustainable management and operating structure for the theater, as well as a consistent artistic identity with clear, well developed programming that is fitting for the historic identity of the theatre.
The Lincoln, an officially-recognized U Street cultural land mark, opened in 1922 as a performance venue. Over time it later became better known as a film theater, anchoring a cluster of three movie houses along the U Street corridor. These served to treat the local Black population to first-run motion pictures in an era when segregation made viewing them downtown impossible.
But the facility gradually deteriorated following the 1968 riots that ravaged U Street. It eventually came under District government control, to be operated by the non-profit USTF. Insufficient revenue from performances, developer indifference and confusion over management strategy drove the Lincoln into insolvency, despite cash infusions over the years.
Gray said by stepping forward with a new plan to save the Lincoln, will “prevent situations like this from happening in the future.” This latest plan calls for DCCAH to partner with the Kennedy Center to operate the theater over several years, with annual financial support from the city.
Richard Lee, an outspoken member of the foundation said if the board was given the seed money it requested it would have been able to operate more effectively. “Gray is a slick dude. He said one thing during the campaign and turned his back on us after he got elected. When we reached out to the Kennedy Center, it gave us the cold shoulder. I wonder how much control of the theatre did the mayor give away. Like Fenty, he can’t be trusted,” Lee said.
For Councilman Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) who also sat on the board, saving the historical structure and keeping with the new vitality of the area is most important. “Hope springs eternal that this great theater with its historic legacy and impact on U Street will come fully to life as a result of this action. Please count on my continued work and cooperation to bring that about,” said Graham.
Board Secretary Cynthia Robbins said she intends to be part of the new board structure devoted to spearheading this revival. “What we will be doing is making sure that this asset, this wonderful gem, this jewel on U Street will be preserved for the community.”
Given the historic nature of the neighborhood, and its changing demographics, what community will the Lincoln be serving, with its strong Kennedy Center connection and input?
A local resident expressed commonly-heard reservations. “It’s an important historical monument”, said 53 year-old Herb Gray, but “When we start using the term ‘revitalize often times that means moving out the indigenous people and bringing in an entirely new element.” He hoped that wouldn’t happen to the Lincoln.