Howard Theatre: History in the Making - Again

Restoration of the historic theater is set to begin

By Mark Stephens
|  Thursday, Sep 2, 2010  |  Updated 11:30 PM EDT
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Howard Theatre: History in the Making - Again

NBCWashington.com

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Listen closely and you can still hear the near-perfect voice of Ella Fitzgerald echo in the halls.

The keystrokes of Duke Ellington's piano resonate in the rubble.

A look out from the stage reveals the faces in the crowd -- some young, some old and almost all brown.

One hundred years ago, The Howard Theatre opened in D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood, becoming the first full-sized threater built for black audiences. It attracted the best in black talent.

"You know them," said D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. "Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Shirley Horne, Redd Foxx himself, even Moms Mabley. Such talent could not be suppressed. It had to find a home. That home was The Howard."

The historic theater flourished until the late 1960's, but because of desegregation and the 1968 riots, The Howard's attendance began to decline. It closed its doors in 1970, was reopened in 1975, then closed again just weeks later. It was only used sprodically through the early-1980s and sat shuttered and in a state of disrepair for years afterwards.

Thursday, that all changed when developers broke ground on a $28 million restoration project.

"It is not going to just restore the magnificence of The Howard Theatre," said D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. "It will be even more than it was before."

The restoration of the theater was made possible by a deal reached between the District and local developer Chip Ellis. The city pledged about $12 million in grants and tax breaks. Eagle Bank came through with a $5 million loan. Ellis is still looking for about $3 million in private donations.

"It's been a long fight," said Ellis. "I knew in my heart I had to take this on and make this happen, and I'm just happy to say today, it's going to be a reality."

That reality will include a tribute to the theater's past. The historic facade will remain. A 20-foot statue of Duke Ellington playing the piano will grace the doorway. The sidewalks will feature bronze medallions with the names of those whose memories still linger.

But this place will not be old. Plans call for a museum, banquet space, and state-of-the-art acoustic, video and recording capabilities.  Blue Note International, owners of the Blue Note and B.B. King clubs in New York, will operate The Howard once it opens. 

And this time, developers hope to keep it open, with the knowledge that its legacy is just as important as its future.

"This was our native institution, synonomous with black Washington itself. African-Americans were a minority in this town until the 1960s, but we said, 'So what? If the public accomodations are segregated, so what!'" said Holmes Norton. "This restoration is essential. Long live The Howard."

Long live The Howard indeed.

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