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Why D.C. Needs the Howard Theater

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Howard Theater Building July 2010

To D.C. folks old enough to remember, “7th & T” means music. That’s because the Howard Theater has sat near the intersection of those streets for a century.  Unfortunately, it’s been idle for the past twenty-five years. The Howard Theater Restoration will reportedly break ground for a restoration next month on August 22nd, the 100th anniversary of the theater. Let’s hope it happens. There’s been rumors for years about funding for the project.  Despite the recent reports, there still doesn’t appear to be any information about a groundbreaking on the theater’s official web site. But if it’s real, the revitalized theater could do wonders for the city and the neighborhood.

The Howard Theater might be the most historically significant music venue in the country.  It opened 100 years ago in 1910 hosting vaudeville acts.  It didn’t take long to become the crown jewel of the Chitlin’ Circuit where nearly every great African-American performer of the twentieth century performed.  After the Howard’s success, similar theaters popped up in other cities including New York’s Apollo, Baltimore’s Royal, and Chicago’s Regal Theater.

1936 Washington Afro-American Ad

Duke Ellington worked there painting sets before he ever touched the piano keys on stage.  Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday and every top jazz act played there from the 30s through the 50s.  Comedian Moms Mabley became a regular then, later so were Redd Foxx and Dick Gregory.

Soul stars like James Brown came through in the 50s. Teenage Marvin Gaye was there to see it.  He told biographer David Ritz: “The Howard was my real high school.  I studied the singers like my life depended on it…. James Brown was opening for Little Willie John in those days, and between James and Jackie Wilson I knew I could never be a sure enough stage performer.” Luckily he worked at it, and was the inspiration to other D.C. kids when he took to the Howard stage just a few years after watching Brown and Wilson.  All of his Motown label mates were also big draws around the same time.

Gaye certainly was a hero to fake superstar Mingering Mike who pretended he played there in 1968.  By the late 70s and early 80s, D.C. favorites like Chuck Brown, Rare Essence, and Trouble Funk performed often.  Like Gaye and Ellington, Brown was at the Howard long before he was performing.  He recalls shining Louis Armstrong’s shoes while the trumpeter was on a break between sets.  It would be amazing to see these bands play in the renovated theater in the 2010s.

There are plenty of other music venues in the neighborhood around the Howard Theater. The 9:30 club is around the corner.  U Street is dotted with jazz clubs.  The Lincoln Theater is another venue with an interesting history, though it certainly doesn’t hold concerts enough to be considered a music venue.  But the Howard should add something new — a major music hall, a place where big and small names from the world of jazz, R&B, hip-hop, go-go, and other genres can play.  This will fill a void in the area.  The rebirth of the Howard offers the Shaw neighborhood the opportunity to become the premier nightlife destination in the area.  It will attract patrons from the growing diverse population all over D.C. and neighborhood locals and that’s exactly what the city needs.  Let’s hope the restoration really begins in August.

Update:  The groundbreaking took place on September 2nd.  Here’s the City Paper story.