During the segregation era when Washington D.C.’s U Street corridor was known as “the Black Broadway,” the Howard Theatre was its crown jewel. After a $29 million renovation, the 102-year-old People’s Theatre is starting to lift its show curtains once again. Hopes are high among Black entertainers and entrepreneurs as the historic Howard re-opens with a rebuilt stage, a state-of-the-art sound system, walnut paneling, oak floors and new seating. The reopening of the Howard harkens back to a time when Blacks were big in the entertainment business. At its 1910 opening, the Howard Theatre was billed as “the largest colored theatre in the world.” It was the first major theater built to feature Black entertainers performing for a predominantly Black clientele.
This time around, the Howard Theatre stands elegant neat the intersection of 7th and T Streets in Northwest, Washington and combines elements of Beaux Arts, Italian Renaissance and neoclassical design to its stature as a landmark of the historically-Black LeDroit Park neighborhood. The Howard Theatre came on the entertainment scene before Harlem’s Apollo. Both venues came out of the “Chitlin’ Circuit” tradition, the string of performance venues that existed throughout the eastern and southern United States from the early 19th century through the 1960s. The name is a play on the collaboration that existed between Blacks and Jews and the term “Borscht belt,” which referred to a group of venues (primarily in New York’s Catskills) popular with Jewish performers during the 1940s – 60s. The Howard represents the places that back in the day were the center of Black commerce and thoroughfares of locally-owned businesses. In city after city, these thoroughfares included block after block of Black enterprises that included banks, pawn shops, hotels, funeral homes, fancy shops and upscale eateries.
In addition to the Howard, noted theaters on the Chitlin’ Circuit included the Royal Peacock in Atlanta; Carver Theatre in Birmingham, Ala.; the Cotton Club, Small’s Paradise and the Apollo Theater in New York City; the Regal Theatre in Chicago; the Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia; the Royal Theatre in Baltimore; the Fox Theatre in Detroit; the Hippodrome Theatre in Richmond, Va.; and the Ritz Theatre in Jacksonville, Fla.
The theaters featured vaudeville, musicals and local variety and church programs. A network of business operators and operations flourished along the Chitlin Circuit. These businesses often included entertainment and vice scenes run by men involved in the numbers, bootleg liquor and money laundering. The Chitlin Circuit fostered the development of hundreds of Black businesses and artists that included T-Bone Walker, Ike Turner, Little Richard, James Brown, etc.
The current Howard Theatre is owned by the District of Columbia. Howard Theatre Restoration, Inc. (HTR), a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, leads a collaborative effort with the D.C. government to oversee the Howard Theatre’s reconstruction and cultural development. The venture is being managed by the Ellis Development Group. Officials from U.S. Bank, Howard Theatre Restoration, Inc., and the Ellis Development Group say more than $10 million in financing was provided through a U.S. Bank community development subsidiary.
U.S. Bank Vice President Laura Vowell said that financial support “helped ensure that a building which played a significant role in Washington D.C.’s past will do so again in the future.” Other underwriters include the D.C. Mayor’ Office, Eagle Bank, Howard University and the National Park Service.
The Blue Note Entertainment Group has a 20-year lease to operate the theater. The company also operates the Blue Note jazz club in New York’s Greenwich Village, the B.B. King Blues Club in Times Square and The Highline Ballroom. The group books venues up and down the East Coast and manages D.C. landmarks that include Georgia Brown’s Restaurant.
“I’m excited to be associated with restoration of the legendary Howard Theatre,” says Steven Bensusan, president of Blue Note Entertainment Group. “It’s an honor to be a part of this project and to help preserve the rich tradition of The Howard, while bringing forth a modern concept in both design and programming.”
William Reed is head of the Business Exchange Network and available for speaking/seminar projects through the Bailey Group.org. •