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Howard Theatre honors 3 singers who signify its ‘great history’

- - Thursday, April 18, 2013

Just three years ago, only the longest-tenured Washingtonians could recall that the dilapidated and unmarked building at Wiltberger and T streets Northwest was once the cultural epicenter of what was then the nation's largest urban black population. Now, $29 million and countless man hours later, the Howard Theatre once again stands as the premier entertainment destination in the Shaw neighborhood.

The Howard Theatre will host its second annual Gala and Benefit Concert on Friday to raise funds for the theater's nonprofit arm. The gala's theme will be a celebration of the women of the Howard Theatre, and the Howard will present its Trailblazer Award to Dionne Warwick, Chaka Khan, and Valerie Simpson. Performers including BeBe Winans, Yolanda Adams, Marsha Ambrosius, and Sheila E. will perform tributes to the trio of award winners, and also will celebrate the legacies of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and the late Etta James.

"These women signify some of the great history of the Howard Theatre," said Roy "Chip" Ellis, developer of the Howard Theatre and trustee of the Howard Theatre Restoration.

Each of the three honorees has a relationship with the theater, but few performers as long as Dionne Warwick. She performed her first record, "Don't Make Me Over," at the Howard Theatre in the early 1960s, and last appeared at the Howard in February to pay tribute to Stevie Wonder after he received the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Distinguished Individual Award. (The Washington Times requested an interview with the singer but declined an offer to submit written questions in advance for her via her publicist, to which responses from, or on behalf of, Miss Warwick would be emailed.)

Valerie Simpson is receiving the award as a tribute to her place in Motown's storied relationship with the Howard.

"Valerie Simpson wrote many of the songs that Motown singers sang at the Howard, and the Motown Revue was a major show at the Howard Theatre," Mr. Ellis said. "As Berry Gordy stated last year as we honored him, the Motown Revue came to the Howard Theatre probably more so than any other theater in the country, and was a great springboard to many of the artists."

Chaka Khan performed at the Howard last May, shortly after its reopening, and the Howard Theatre Restoration was so impressed that they wanted to bring her back.

"We thought she was very worthy of being recognized and celebrated for her career, as well as the current music that she is developing, during her celebration of her 40th anniversary in the music business," Mr. Ellis said.

Fresh off of his exit from ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" on Tuesday, D.L. Hughley will host the gala along with fellow comedian Kym Whitley.

"If he wants to do a little jig for us on stage, we'll definitely applaud him," Mr. Ellis said. "Maybe he'll stay for the after-party and give us some notes on how to dance."

The Howard Theatre opened its doors in 1910, and was one of the first theaters in the country to cater to a primarily black audience. More than two decades before the famed Apollo Theater opened in its current incarnation in New York, the Howard created the concept of amateur night, and gave young talents such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine their big breaks. The Howard welcomed generations of musicians to its stage, including legends Sarah Vaughan, Stevie Wonder, Sammy Davis Jr., and the first performance of the Supremes.

As a result of the dramatic changes Washington underwent following the 1968 riots, the Howard limped along through the 1970s before ultimately closing in 1980. Decades of disrepair followed, until the Howard Theater Restoration, a nonprofit organization, led the $29 million effort to rebuild and return it to its former status as the premier entertainment venue of the Shaw neighborhood. Most notably, the renovation included the return of the Howard's original Beaux Arts facade, shedding the stucco-based design used in a renovation in the 1940s. The Howard reopened last April, and though its first year of operation has not been seamless, Mr. Ellis says that the theater already is breaking even and is on a path to profitability.

"It's critical in the sense that we want to raise money for the nonprofit side so that we can build an education facility off the bat," Mr. Ellis said. "We have a $7 million campaign to build the building and endow the organization so that we can have what was planned. We'll have a museum, classroom, listening library and recording studio for people to come and be educated on the rich history of the theater as the first major theater built for African-Americans in the country."

Though the Howard's history is notable and worthy of celebration, the theater's leadership has no plans to rest on its legacy.

"Going forward, we really believe that we want to be the place for the next great artists," Mr. Ellis said. "The purpose of the Howard is to showcase these great artists of tomorrow. We plan on giving young people locally in the metro area the opportunity to be discovered. They'll never sound any better than they do at the Howard."

WHAT: Howard Theatre second annual Gala and Benefit Concert

WHERE: Howard Theatre, 620 T St. NW

WHEN: Friday at 8 p.m.

PHONE: 202/803-2899

WEB: thehowardtheatre.com