During the segregation era when Washington, D.C.'s U Street corridor was known as "Black Broadway," the Howard Theatre was its crown jewel. After a $29 million renovation, the 101-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 reopens with a rebuilt stage, a state-of-the-art sound system, walnut paneling, oak floors and new seating. The reopening of the theater 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 theater in the world." It was the first major theater built to feature Black entertainers performing for a predominantly Black audience.
This time around, the Howard Theatre, an elegant edifice at 7th and T Streets in Northwest, Washington combines elements of Beaux Arts, Italian Renaissance and neo-classical design to its stature as a landmark of the historically-Black LeDroit Park neighborhood. The Howard Theatre appeared 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 Catskill Mountains] popular with Jewish performers during the 1940s-60s. Back in the day, the Howard Theatre represented one of the venues – a center of Black commerce and a thoroughfare of locally owned businesses. In city after city these thoroughfares included Black enterprises such as banks, pawnshops, hotels, funeral homes, fancy shops and upscale eateries.
Noted theaters on the Chitlin' Circuit included the Royal Peacock in Atlanta; Carver Theatre in Birmingham, Ala.; Cotton Club, Small's Paradise and the Apollo Theater in New York City; the Regal Theatre in Chicago; the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.; 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 illicit enterprises run by individuals involved in "the numbers," bootleg liquor and money laundering. The Chitlin Circuit fostered the development of hundreds of Black businesses and artists who included T Bone Walker, Ike Turner, Little Richard, James Brown and others.
The Howard Theatre is currently 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 business 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 said more that $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 Eagle Bank, Howard University and the National Park Service.
The Blue Note Entertainment Group signed 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 District landmarks that include Georgia Brown's restaurant. "I'm excited to be associated with restoration of the legendary Howard Theatre," said 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 [Theatre], 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 via the Bailey Group.org.)