- The Washington Times - Monday, November 23, 2009

The Howard. Just mention the legendary theater in a room full of Washingtonians old enough to remember the place in its heyday and listen. Everyone has a story.

For decades, the Howard Theatre was a mecca for black entertainers such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, James Brown, the Supremes, the Drifters. Then the lights went out.

It’s been years since the theater went dark, mired in blight, a victim of urban decay amid the District’s now thriving U Street corridor.

That seems about to change.

After a series of false starts spanning two decades, restoration of the vintage venue could become a reality — but not before the theater’s centennial celebration.

The historic theater will turn 100 years old in August. Curtains will remain closed for its centennial celebration, but not much longer, said Roy “Chip” Ellis, chief executive of Ellis Development Group, the D.C. developer charged with restoring the structure.

“The theater will not be open in 2010, but we are planning a gala-style celebration in 2010 which can also serve as a fundraiser,” he said, adding that a grand reopening is scheduled for 2011.

Before the Apollo Theater in Harlem and the Regal in Baltimore or a host of other black playhouses that later would be dubbed the “Chitlin Circuit,” there was the Howard, an imposing sight with its neoclassical facade and statue of Apollo playing his lyre atop the building.

Blacks who were not allowed in the District’s white venues during segregation could sit in the majestic Howard on Sixth and T streets Northwest and bask in the grandeur of the 12,000-square-foot theater, its baroque interior, 1,200 seats and eight balcony boxes.

“In the ‘50s, you were not allowed to go downtown to the white theaters. So if you don’t have anything to compare it to, the Howard Theatre was the greatest thing you’ve ever seen,” said Lawrence Berry, 68, a longtime promoter and producer for local recording artists. “I started going to the Howard Theatre around ‘51. I saw all the greats come through at one time or another.”

The theater, named after nearby Howard University, also welcomed white patrons. An article in the New York Age newspaper, written five days after the theater’s opening night on Aug. 22, 1910, said the venue was “the finest and most beautiful playhouse erected,… a theatre where the color line is unknown and where all are cordially welcome.”

In 2007, when Mr. Ellis won a city contract to restore the shuttered theater, excitement ran high. The city, which assumed ownership of the building in 1986, provided Mr. Ellis with $8 million in hopes that the theater — along with a planned $100 million headquarters for Radio One Inc. that Mr. Ellis is developing in the same area — would spur significant economic growth.

Mr. Ellis and Radio One Chief Executive Alfred C. Liggins III kicked off a fundraising campaign for the theater in February 2008, shortly after winning the contract. Mr. Ellis estimated he needed $22 million to get the job done.

Two years later, after talks of yet another restoration effort began, Howard Theatre Restoration Inc., the organization working in conjunction with Ellis Development to raise the money, has secured just $1.6 million.

“We signed a lease with the city around [November] last year,” Mr. Ellis said, noting that it is difficult to raise funds without any formal ownership of a venue. “I would say that raising $1.6 million isn’t bad in the worst economy since the Great Depression.”

Despite the economic downturn, U.S. charitable giving in 2008 dropped just 2 percent from 2007, according to an annual philanthropy survey conducted by the Giving USA Foundation. Still, Mr. Ellis said he can feel the squeeze.

“If this was five years ago, our ability to get individuals and corporations more interested and committed to making philanthropic donations would be that much easier,” he said.

Mr. Ellis is hoping to raise $3 million by March to get theater renovations started.

Few vestiges of the theater’s past remain. The desolate space sits lifeless, surrounded by barbed-wire fence. Bits of trash are scattered about. A rusted signed emblazoned with the word “Howard” has replaced Apollo and his lyre.

Inside, there no lights, no chairs, no stage. Wires dangle from the ceiling, and the theater’s upper level is sagging. But D.C. resident Robert Snellings, 58, remembers when the theater lured hundreds to its front step to see the likes of Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, the Jewels and Jackie “Moms” Mabley. The theater was good for business, Mr. Snellings said.

Mr. Snellings’ mother owned a hair salon on Florida Avenue, across the street from the theater. “I used to sit out front playing checkers. The ladies would come in and get their hair done and get ready for the show. Some of the men would come, too,” said Mr. Snellings. “There would be crowds of people as if it were Christmas.”

The Howard became a way of linking the neighborhood with the rest of the world.

Ahmet Ertegun, a Turkish immigrant born in Istanbul, may have never founded the legendary Atlantic Records had it not been for the Howard Theatre.

His father, Mehmet Ertegun, came to Washington as Turkey’s first ambassador to the U.S. during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Planted in a new nation, Ahmet Ertegun embarked on a musical journey that began at the Howard Theatre and ended in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Atlantic Records became home to recording artists such as Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Aretha Franklin, the Clovers and the Drifters.

NowHoward Theatre Restoration is planning a fundraiser hosted by the Turkish Embassy for early next year. The embassy is interested in commemorating Ahmet Ertegun, restoration officials said.

As donations continue to trickle in, the 21st-century vision for the theater, cemented in blueprints and digital three-dimensional designs, remains a dream waiting to be brought to fruition.

Building coastal connections is at the heart of Howard Restoration’s fundraising strategy, said Wanda Felton, a member of the organization’s board of trustees who lives in New York.

Ms. Felton, an investment banker at Helix Associates — a private equity-fund-placement agency — and a native Washingtonian, saw her first concert at Howard. “My dad took me to see a matinee featuring James Brown. The energy was incredible. The place was electric.”

Ms. Felton’s aim is to strengthen links between people involved in the performing-arts arena in Washington and like-minded people in New York.

The Howard Theatre’s network and its history transcend Washington, “and we’ve got to tap into that,” Ms. Felton said.

Last year, construction crews removed the 1940s facade to reveal the theater’s original facade. “The outside of the theater was constructed of white Romanesque brick, a rarity for any black establishment in 1910,” said Chip Ellis. “That type of brick was used for great architectural building of that time. The brick is probably the only reason that this building is still standing.”

A video of the process can be seen on YouTube.com.

“We are making progress,” said Malik Ellis, chief operating officer for the Ellis Development Group and nephew of Chip Ellis’.

“The inside of the building has been gutted and weatherized. Unlike most theaters, there is a kitchen. It will be driven by the restaurant component. There will be a classroom, opportunities to offer lessons in classical jazz. The new theater will be a place where people can come for special events. On one day, you might see a great concert, and on the next day, you can host a corporate luncheon,” Chip Ellis said.

In 1975, the Howard Theatre Foundation reopened the building for its 65th anniversary. On opening night, comedian Redd Foxx and singer Melba Moore rekindled the old Howard Theatre spirit, but it was short-lived. Soon, the place closed down. Shaw area residents are hoping that Mr. Ellis’ effort doesn’t meet the same fate.

“We owe it to this community and to this building to get this theater restored. It is a diamond in the rough. We are ready to expose its history and re-educate this community,” Mr. Ellis said.

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