Friday, March 16, 2012

From the DC Digital Museum... Howard Theatre: A Class Act

1985 Film Illustrates the Historic Howard Theatre's Prominence in the Shaw Neighborhood's Collective Past

In just a little less than a month, the famed Howard Theatre at 620 T Street, NW will reopen its doors for the first time since the 1980s. The venue was once the site of performances by the likes of Pearl Bailey, Roberta Flack, and Washington's native son -- Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington. 

The theater was founded in 1910 and contributed to the Greater U Street area's emergence as a hotbed of nightlife and entertainment. The Howard was DC's answer to Philadelphia's Pearl and New York's Apollo, and during the theater's heyday, U Street famously became known as "Black Broadway."  

When segregation ended in Washington, and many middle-class African American families began patronizing downtown businesses for the first time, the popularity of the Howard began to wane. The theater's decline quickened following the 1968 Riots in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The Howard closed its doors in 1970, but the Howard Theater Foundation, a group dedicated to restoring and reopening the venue, was organized just three years later; an eagerness that seems to demonstrate how large the theater loomed in the memory of the community.

The Foundation was briefly successful, and the Howard reopened and played host to a number of significant R&B acts and became very important to DC's local Go-Go scene throughout the 1970s and into the 80s, but was eventually forced to close again. But even as it's once great facade began to crumble and fade, it remained an important symbol of pride for the longtime residents of the Shaw and Greater U Street communities. 

In the mid eighties, the Humanities Council funded a documentary film entitled, "The Howard Theater: a Class Act." The documentary traced the history of the venerable old building and outlined contemporary efforts to restore it. The film is now part of the DC Digital Museum and is available for loan. 

In 2010, the longtime mission of Howard Theater Restoration Inc. became was realized. Then DC Mayor Adrian Fenty was on hand as the group broke ground on a multimillion dollar restoration project headed by Ellis Development and Whiting & Turner Construction. The recently completed renovations included a full reconstruction the 1910 facade giving the theater the same majestic appearance it had when it opened its doors over 100 years ago.

On April 9, 2012, the Howard Theatre will hold a community day during which they hold a ribbon cutting, officially opening the restored facility. That event will be free and open to the public. The festivities will continue with a grand opening gala and benefit concert on April 12th to raise funds for the Howard Theatre Culture and Education Center. 

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