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Lincoln Theatre seeks cash infusion

D.C. urged to prevent closure

LANDMARK: Entertainers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong performed at the Lincoln Theatre during a time when segregation barred patrons from downtown theaters. The venue faces a financial crisis. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/The Washington Times)LANDMARK: Entertainers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong performed at the Lincoln Theatre during a time when segregation barred patrons from downtown theaters. The venue faces a financial crisis. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/The Washington Times)
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The historic Lincoln Theatre, the 1920s-era stage often described as the heart of the District's "Black Broadway," will close before the end of the year if it does not get a cash infusion from the city, its board members said Thursday.

A cultural landmark on the U Street corridor, the theater that during its heyday hosted performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong for patrons barred from downtown theaters because of segregation has about $50,000 on hand to cover operating expenses that run about $60,000 per month, board members said.

D.C. Council member Jim Graham, who represents the area, said at an afternoon press conference outside the venue that the city's fiscal year 2012 budget did not contain an annual $250,000 appropriation to fund the publicly owned theater, which is operated by a nonprofit foundation.

The city provided $250,000 to rescue the theater in July. The foundation is seeking $500,000 in assistance for the next year or it says the theater will have to close.

"It is essential that the Lincoln Theatre remain open and operating," Cynthia Robbins, a U Street Theatre Foundation board member, said. "In order for a public theater owned by the District to operate effectively, it must have committed resources to support the operation."

Ms. Robbins said no scheduled performances have been canceled so far, but the theater is starting to get some worried calls from parties booked to perform this fall.

On Thursday, its online calendar listed four events — two of them were for the 8th Annual Festival of the Arts — through Nov. 8.

The ornate theater, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, opened in 1922. It was closed in 1983 but was renovated and reopened in 1994.

The dramatic announcement that the theater faces imminent closure generated something of a political back-and-forth between the foundation's board and the administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

Board members on Thursday decried a lack of support and face time with Mr. Gray, who they blamed for many of their problems.

Board member Richard S. Lee said the group requested a meeting with the mayor to address their needs but "received no response."

Mr. Gray's spokeswoman, Linda Wharton Boyd, said that is not the case.

She said Mr. Gray "firmly believes the Lincoln theatre is a historical landmark and values its contribution to the rich cultural life of the city."

In fact, Ms. Boyd said senior members of the Gray administration reached out to the board earlier this month to discuss the theater's financial situation and to help with developing strategies to address it.

"The calls were never returned," Ms. Boyd said.

She said Victor Hoskins, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, planned to call board members again Thursday.

"We'll see what happens after he talks to them," she said.

The theater has six full-time employees and its board of directors is composed of volunteers. Its highest paid employee, executive director Eilene Lifsey, makes $80,000 per year.

Board members say their management is sound, their audits have come back clean and closure would harm economic development along U Street.

"We love this place, my kids come and perform here," said Abdur-Rahim Muhammad, founder of the Hung Tao Choy Mei martial arts institute on U Street.

He said it unfair for a local treasure to go without a government subsidy, because it is a small operation that cannot afford a marketing team to drive up performance volume and attendance.

"I don't think we can put it all at the feet of the staff there," he said.

Council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, tried to dedicate $500,000 to the theater during budget talks over the summer. In bold horse-trading from the dais, he asked a colleague to add the funding to an amendment that would reorder the council's funding priorities if a windfall of revenue came in.

A revenue estimate in June did not provide enough money to cover Mr. Orange's request for the Lincoln Theatre.

And when September revenues exceeded projections by some $89 million, council Chairman Kwame R. Brown said the money was needed to restore the city's fund balance.

Supporters of the Lincoln Theatre say some of those funds should go toward their problems and not be stowed away.

"There's too much need," Mr. Graham said. "There's too much at risk to do that."

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