Ask the District’s mayor about his memories of the Howard Theatre, and his shoulders relax as the usual full-time at-attention stance eases “his honor” into native son Vince Gray.
“Did I go to the Howard?” he asked, tossing my query back on me. “Yes!” he exclaimed.
“I remember the last show I attended there,” he continued with much enthusiasm. “Junior Walker and the All Stars were performing, and Junior jumped off the stage and began walking through the audience, all the way up the aisle, around the concession stand, without missing a beat.”
Ahh. The good ol’ days at the Howard, a turn-of-the-last-century live-performance joint that’s been jumpin’ for 18 months. No, not with the glitterati of the entertainment industry or the sounds of music and applause wafting from the rectangular brick building.
Not just yet anyway.
The Howard has been undergoing an intense renovation that, already having provided a new facade, also is restoring its innards and will light its marquee for a grand gala and benefit concert April 12 featuring an eclectic mix performers, including jazz interpreters Al Jarreau and Joe Sample, R&B vocalist Raheem DeVaughn and social satirist and activist Dick Gregory.
The reopening of the Howard, which catered to blacks and is located in center city, has been a hard slog for Washingtonians.
Closed a couple years after the 1968 riots tore asunder much of the U Street corridor, save for a few places like Lee’s Flower & Card Shop and Ben’s Chili Bowl, the Howard, where greats including Duke Ellington, Ela Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstein performed, experienced renovation fits and restarts in the 1970s and 1980s. Although it had long ago been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, it wasn’t until September 2010 that the theater was gutted and a full restoration began.
Wanda Henderson, a D.C. native and small-business owner who advocated on behalf of full restoration, appears to be still holding her breath even though gala night is no longer just penciled in her datebook.
Ms. Henderson strolls down memory lane to recall growing up in LeDroit Park, going to high school just blocks away, attending shows at the Howard and opening her beauty and barber shop around the corner from the theater, on Seventh Street.
“Baby, I’ve always stayed close to home, in the neighborhood,” she said Wednesday afternoon in her salon, which now is on Georgia Avenue, across from another Howard, the university.
Back in the day, Ms. Henderson said, she and her girlfriends would walk “through the Bloomingdale neighborhood” to avoid the hot spots near the Howard, and that’s “how we would walk back home.”
She fondly recalled seeing shows that featured the now-Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown, who back then performed with the Soul Searchers, and the Unifics, another local group.
“But Walter Jackson stirred me,” she said of the polio-disabled R&B singer. “Baby, he was on stage on those crutches, and when he sang, he was speaking my name.
“I was heartbroken when the Howard closed because it was home base for all the musical concert shows,” she continued. “I’m so glad we are continuing a cultural icon, so we can remember that era. This time, the performers are more eclectic to match changes” in the city’s demographics.
Indeed, times are changing.
To ensure that the Howard becomes a moneymaker and not a venue that merely soothes the musical souls of baby boomers, future bookings include Blue Oyster Cult and the for-adults-only Henson Alternative.
And, because D.C. foodies’ tastes are as diverse as their musical interests, the Howard will have dining facilities. Renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson has been hired to feed the masses.
A man of slight stature and an easy smile, Mr. Samuelsson, who owns the famous Red Rooster Harlem in Harlem, N.Y., welcomes his guests as if they are family.
With the date of the gala written in ink, Tony Robinson, a 1980 graduate of H.D. Woodson High School who is spokesman for City Administrator Allen Lew, admitted Wednesday, “I missed that Howard period.” He favored Parliament Funkedelic and Earth Wind & Fire, which played in much larger venues, he said, but added of the Howard: “My dad and that [World War II] generation experienced it, and they’re dying off. But I’m looking forward to experiencing it.”
• Deborah Simmons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org