WASHINGTON – Gregory “Guitar Greg” Gaskins has performed around the world with the Manhattans, Elvis, Regina Bell, Al Green and others. But his first big gig was at the Howard Theatre during the mid 1960s. Playing his guitar, the D.C. native took the stage with another District native, Billy Stewart. And when they had their first break, Gaskins said he came outside and thought, “Wow, I just played at the Howard Theatre.”

He recalled walking across the street to a pool room where his dad used to hang out.

“He was so proud. He said, ‘Yea, that’s my son. He’s playing over there at the Howard Theatre.’”

The 1968 riots, in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., negatively impacted the theater’s surrounding neighborhood, and shortly after the riots the theater closed. After partial renovations and unsuccessful re-openings in the 1970s and 1980s, the theater remained vacant, but with a new $29 million renovation, the theater is aiming to set the stage for a successful re-opening.

It was at the Howard where Gaskins, now 66, first met up with the Manhattans, the group famous for hits such as “Kiss and Say Goodbye” and “Shining Star.” “They had a song called ‘Searching for my Baby,’ and it had a very important guitar part, but they didn’t have a guitar player with them,” Gaskins said. “That’s how I got the gig with the Manhattans, three notes.”

Sandra Butler-Truesdale also worked with the Howard. At the Poro Beauty School, now an Ethiopian restaurant, Truesdale pressed and curled the manes of many of the female performers. It cost them a dollar to get their hair done. “I’ve done everybody’s hair from Tina Turner to Gladys Knight to the Raelettes,” she said.

Between 1962 and 1966, Truesdale, now 70, traveled for two years with Ray Charles and the Raelettes and two years with James Brown as his comb-out girl. After the barber, who went by “Square John,” processed Brown’s hair, Truesdale did the rest.

“The first person I saw perform at the theater was Lena Horne,” Truesdale said. Horne, not yet a star singer; she was a dancer with the chorus line. Truesdale was 5 years old.

“Historically, families came to the Howard Theatre. They brought their children there, and their children learned how to appreciate performances.”

On Thursdays, when Truesdale was in high school, if she got there by 5 p.m. a ticket was 90 cents for the rest of the night.

After her travelling beautician days, Truesdale got her theology degree and preached for a while as associate pastor of Rock Creek Baptist Church before choosing street ministry as her method of evangelism. She joined the Howard Theatre Restoration Community Committee during its early days and is the vice chair of the committee and its vice president of public relations. The committee now consists of about 40 members.

Ron Hillyer is also a member of the growing committee. He is co-chair of the public relations committee.

Hillyer, a 57 year old former D.C. public school janitor and current education advocate, credits his parents and the Howard for inspiring him to pursue the arts in addition to his day job.

When he was 5 years old, Hillyer’s father took his family to the Howard. Comedian Clay Tyson was the emcee.

“They always showed a movie first, then there would be a small intermission … then the lights would come on behind stage. The band would start up. The curtains would open up,” Hillyer said.

The part he liked most as a kid was when the microphone rose from beneath the stage. “When I saw that, I was hooked,” he said.

Segregation prevented Blacks from going downtown to certain theaters, but anyone could come to the Howard, considered by some as the people’s theater. Hillyer said a senior member of the committee who lived near the Howard told him it was not uncommon to see a line around the corner “with nothing but White folk coming to see Ella Fitzgerald.”

“I hope that the community as a whole will support the theater. In that support people learn how to care for and about each other,” Truesdale said.

Truesdale said what made the Ellis Development Group stand out compared to other contractors is the company’s care about what the community committee thought.

Developing ideas to make the theater a continued success is a work in progress.

“We’re still working,” she said.

The Howard Theatre’s Ribbon Cutting Ceremony and Community Day is 10 a.m., April 9; a Celebration Concert is Apri1 10 and the Grand Opening Gala is April 12.

Brooke Kelly

Scripps Howard Foundation Wire