Music News
3:03 am
Sun April 8, 2012

In D.C., A Bastion Of Black Entertainment Returns

It was 1910. Howard Taft was president, the Boy Scouts of America came into being and in Washington, D.C., the Howard Theatre opened its doors, ushering in a new era of black culture and entertainment.

The Howard was the country's first large music venue for black audiences, the center of what was known as "Black Broadway," and played host to the likes of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and some of Motown's biggest acts.

One of those acts, The Supremes, made their debut at Howard Theatre in 1962, their first performance outside their hometown of Detroit.

"It was always full, and the screaming — I mean, you've seen the audiences at the Apollo — it was that kind of audience at the Howard," says Supremes founding member Mary Wilson. "It was always packed."

But the Howard went dark in the 1970s. The riots following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were bad for business. The neighborhood changed, and many of the performers who once called the Howard home took their acts to other stages.

In the decades that followed, the theater underwent partial renovations and short-lived reopenings, but for most of the past 30 years, it has sat empty: a dilapidated old building bearing no sign of its former glory.

Many people have been involved in bringing the Howard back to life. Developer Chip Ellis, a fourth-generation Washingtonian and president of the Ellis Development Group, is one of them.

"We wanted to speak to the real rich history of the Howard," Ellis says, standing outside the theater on 7th and T Streets, NW. "It's been dormant for 30 years and so the history has gone dormant along with it. We thought it was really important that people see, from the outside, the oldest major theater for African-Americans in the country. And so all the detail you see here is an exact replica of the 1910 facade."

After six years and $29 million, the Howard is back. The theater has a stucco facade, accentuated by white brick detailing over the windows. The entryway is flanked by white Corinthian columns, and above the doors a black metal marquee displays the theater's name.

Ellis grew up in the neighborhood, so for him, renovating the Howard was personal.

"My father used to tell me stories about Lionel Hampton playing 'Flying Home,'" Ellis says. "People would just go crazy and jump off the balcony and onto the stage and start dancing and stuff."

Though the outside of the theater is an homage to an earlier time, the inside is modern. The Brazilian marble lobby is surrounded by glass doors and HD screens; the walls are wrapped in black walnut. Two oversized black-and-white images of Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong frame the ticket window.

"The Billie Holiday picture just speaks everything about jazz music, and everything about the era and the history," Ellis says. "She was one of the ones that started out here. She came from Baltimore, and she was a regular here at the Howard Theatre."

Bernard Demczuk, a professor of African-American history at George Washington University, has also been involved with the theater's redevelopment.

"We often forget this was a venue for oratory,"Demczuk says. "So Booker T. Washington spoke here. W.E.B. Dubois spoke here. The Howard Theatre was not just a doo-wop and a soul and a rock 'n' roll venue.

"Let me be clear," he adds, "it was not just for black people. The other term for the Howard was the People's Theater. And the People's Theater means that it really was open for everybody."

Wilson of The Supremes was barely out of her teens when she, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard began performing at the Howard.

"Mrs. Ross, who was Diane's mom, she would always chaperone," Wilson says. "This one particular week, when we were there and Jackie Wilson was the star, she asked Jackie Wilson if he would baby-sit for us. He said, 'Oh sure, Mrs. Ross, I'll look after the girls.' ... We had so much fun performing there."

The Howard Theatre is getting fitted with final touches: The lights are being tested out, the floors are getting scrubbed, the chairs are being set. This week, the old building at 7th and T will become the People's Theater once again.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The year was 1910. William Howard Taft was president of the United States, the Boy Scouts of America was founded, and in Washington, D.C., the Howard Theatre opened its doors, ushering in a new era of black culture and entertainment.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAGTIME MUSIC)

MARTIN: The Howard was one of the country's first large music venues for African-American audiences, the center of what was known as Black Broadway. And it played host to the likes of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and some of Motown's biggest acts, like The Supremes. Mary Wilson was part of that group.

MARY WILSON: I remember the one time when we worked there, The Dells were on the show.

(Singing) Oh, what a night...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH, WHAT A NIGHT")

THE DELLS: (Singing) Oh, what a night. Ooh, to love you dear...

MARTIN: The Supremes made their debut at the Howard Theater in 1962.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET ME GO THE RIGHT WAY")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing) I'm yours. Don't you know that I done fell for you? I fell for you...

WILSON: It was always full and the screaming, and I mean, you've seen the audiences at the Apollo, it was that kind of audience at the Howard, always. It was always packed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET ME GO THE RIGHT WAY")

SUPREMES: (Singing) You took my love. Took my love. And take all my love. And take all my love. Don't lead me astray...

MARTIN: But years passed and things changed. The riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. drove audiences away. And many of the performers, who once called the Howard Theatre home, took their acts to other stages. And in 1970, the Howard Theatre went dark. For most of the last 30 years, it just sat empty - a dilapidated old building, an eyesore bearing no sign of its former glory - until now.

A lot of people have been involved in bringing the Howard back to life, among them, developer Chip Ellis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

CHIP ELLIS: I'm really proud of what we've done here. We actually...

MARTIN: Ellis is a fourth generation Washingtonian and the president of the Ellis Development Group. We met him outside the theatre in the northwestern part of the city, on Seventh and T Streets.

ELLIS: We wanted to speak to the real rich history of the Howard Theatre. It's been dormant for 30 years and so the history has gone dormant along with it. And so, we thought it was really important that people see from the outside the oldest major theatre for African-Americans in the country. And so, all the detail that you see here is exact replica of the 1910 facade.

MARTIN: After six years and $29 million, the Howard Theatre is back. The building has a stucco facade, accentuated by white brick detailing over the windows. Above the doors a black, metal marquee with the theatre's name.

Shall we go inside? Oh my.

ELLIS: So what you see here today is contemporary. The ceiling is much higher I think than it originally was.

MARTIN: Although the outside of the theater is an homage to an earlier time, the inside is totally modern. The Brazilian marble lobby is surrounded by glass doors and HD screens. The walls are wrapped in black walnut. Two oversized black and white images of Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong frame the ticket window.

ELLIS: The Billie Holiday picture just speaks everything about jazz music and just music and just, you know, everything about the era. She was a regular at the Howard Theatre.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THESE FOOLISH THINGS")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) A cigarette that bares a lipstick's traces. An airline ticket to romantic places. And still my heart has wings. These foolish things remind me of you...

MARTIN: Inside the theatre, we met Bernard Demczuk. He's a professor of African-American history at George Washington University, and he's been involved with the theatre's redevelopment. Demczuk took us back in time explaining just how important the Howard Theatre was.

BERNARD DEMCZUK: So, the Howard Theatre in 1910 becomes the anchor of the Black Broadway. There was black money here. There was black talent here. And there was black aspiration. And it wasn't just music. And people often forget what started here really were performers. They were called the Lafayette Players and the Howard Players. But more importantly, this was a venue for oratory. So Booker T. Washington spoke here. WEB Dubois spoke here. So the Howard Theatre was not just a doo-wop and a soul and a rock and roll venue.

MARTIN: Why hasn't the Howard Theatre stuck in our collective memory the way that the Apollo Theater in New York has?

DEMCZUK: Howard Theatre was the premier black theater in America. And, in fact, Howard Theatre started amateur night. Howard Theatre started amateur night in the 1920s. And the Apollo picks it up in the 1930s and voila. The Apollo becomes the big fish.

MARTIN: Can you give me a sense of what those performances were like? Who came to them? What were they wearing? What was the spirit of a performance night here?

DEMCZUK: Of, on Sunday afternoons, it was the promenade of black America. Paris has its Champs De Elysee, well, black America had its Black Broadway. Men had to wear ties and women had to wear white gloves. We refer to this group of people who came here as the black bourgeoisie of America. But let me be clear: It wasn't just about black people. The other term for the Howard was the People's Theatre. And the People's Theatre means that it really was open for everybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Mary Wilson, of The Supremes, was barely out of her teenage years when she, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard were performing at the Howard Theater.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE DID OUR LOVE GO?")

SUPREMES: (Singing) Ooh, please don't leave me all by myself...

WILSON: So Mrs. Ross, who was Diane's mom, would always chaperone. I don't even think we were 21 yet. And so, this one particular week, when we were there and Jackie Wilson was the star, and Mrs. Ross had to go out for lunch or something like that. And she asked Jackie Wilson if he would babysit for us. And so, we were standing behind Mr. Jackie Wilson when she asked. And he said, Oh sure, Mrs. Ross, I'll look after the girls. And we were like, yes, Jackie Wilson is going to babysit for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILSON: But yeah, it's so much fun performing there because of the great stars who were on the show with us. I mean it would be like Wilson Pickett, Richard Pryor, Flip Wilson, Dionne Warwick. All these artists would play at the Howard and it was just a great, great venue.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE DID OUR LOVE GO?")

SUPREMES: (Singing) Where did our love go? Ooh, don't you want me? Don't you want me no more...

MARTIN: At this point, the Howard Theatre is getting fitted with the final touches. The lights are being tested, the floors are getting scrubbed, the chairs are being set. And this week, the old building at 7th and T again becomes the Peoples Theatre.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE DID OUR LOVE GO?")

SUPREMES: (Singing) Baby, baby. Where did our love go and all of your promises of a love forever more? Baby, baby. Ooh, baby, baby. I've got this burning, burning...

MARTIN: And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.