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Reopened Howard Theatre offers nostalgia with a new vibe

- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2012

The scene at the heart of D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood Monday afternoon might well have been taken out of the early 20th century.

The sound of music, seemingly carried down the block on a cool breeze, prompted passers-by to sing and dance, and a line stretched around the corner to get into the Howard Theatre.

The concert hall, which opened in 1910, officially reopened Monday, raising the curtain once again on a legendary stage where Ella Fitzgerald crooned, James Brown wailed and Redd Foxx made 'em laugh.

"It won't be the Howard Theatre of the jazz days, it won't be the Howard Theatre of the rhythm-and-blues days, it's going to be the Howard Theatre of the 21st century," said D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, as he stood in the shade of the building's front entrance. "It's going to be a theater we can be proud of."

A community event Monday was the culmination of more than a decade of fundraising and planning for the theater at the intersection of T and Wiltberger streets in Northwest.

In its day, the hall played host to some of the country's most famous black musicians and served as a cultural center of the District.

As he waited to get through the entrance, Hyattsville resident Preston Walker, 72, remembered his first time at the Howard Theatre.

"My grandma brought me to see Lionel Hampton," said Mr. Walker, referring to the famous jazz musician. "I was 10 years old. People with tickets stretched out to one side and people without tickets stretched around on Wiltberger Street."

In its heyday, the lively theater on Friday nights packed in audiences for shows that lasted into the early hours of Saturday morning.

The theater began to founder after it was damaged in the 1968 riots that shook the city after Martin Luther King's assassination. In 1974, it was put on the National Register of Historic Places. It hosted a smattering of go-go shows, but in 1980 the curtain fell on the D.C. institution.

More than 20 years and $29 million later, the theater has been transformed with gleaming marble and glass, fresh paint and framed photographs of the glory days.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton warned a crowd of spectators who turned out for a "community day" that the theater's new look might not be what older fans remember, but there was cause for celebration because "D.C. is back now that Howard is back."

James Patterson, who worked for 15 years as a maintenance man at the theater and counted "Godfather of Soul" James Brown as a friend, said he already had taken a tour and didn't see the new look being a problem.

"I love it just like I did," said Mr. Patterson, 76, who has run a home-improvement business next to the theater for more than 40 years. "People are going to like what they see. They couldn't have done a better job."

While the crowd swarmed to get a first glimpse of the redeveloped theater, Lenton DeVore, 84, paused for a quiet moment at the foot of a statue dedicated to native Washingtonian Duke Ellington. The installation depicts Ellington playing music that jumps off a keyboard and spirals toward the sky.

"I love it," Mr. DeVore said as he peered through thick tortoise-shell glasses. "The Howard Theatre did a lot for the District. When the Howard Theatre was here, we always had somewhere to go to."

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