Crowd Rejoices at Re-emergence of Howard Theatre

Barrington M. Salmon | 4/11/2012, 2:23 p.m.

Community Day Draws Large, Festive Crowd

The new Howard Theatre got off to a rollicking start Monday when a large and animated gathering crowded into the square in front of the theatre to mark the attraction's rebirth.

About 1,000 curious onlookers listened to a succession of politicians and community leaders wax poetic about the importance of the theatre's reemergence to the city's economy and image, but the real importance of the Community Day arose from the opportunity of old timers to stroll down memory lane.

"It's great being back," said Al Johnson, the lead singer of the Unifics, an R&B group that had its beginnings at Howard University. "I have lots of great memories. We played the theatre four times between 1968 and 1972. It was a joy. Whenever we knew we were coming here, everyone just got geared up."

Johnson said the two songs that put the group on the map were "The Beginning of My End" [released in 1968] and "Court of My Love."

After the group split up, Johnson embarked on a solo career as well as songwriting and producing. He worked with groups and individuals such as The Whispers, the Dells, Roberta Flack, Jean Carne, Peabo Bryson and Norman Connors.

Thurayyah Rahman recalled as a 14-year-old standing in 20-and 30-degree weather in lines extending around the block waiting to get in to see the likes of Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson, Moms Mabley, Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels, Sam Cooke and Jerry Butler.

"It was so special. They were African Americans first and they always paused to communicate with their audiences," said Rahman. "Everything seemed so impromptu. I stayed for two, three shows and no matter how many people were there, they packed them in."

Rahman, who is in her 60s and who said she "lives up the street from the theatre," said she misses those days but looks forward to attending any number of events at her old stomping ground.

Under sunny, blue skies, a crisp wind and a slight chill in the air, the crowd heard from elected officials such as Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton [D-D.C.], Mayor Vincent C. Gray, D.C. "Mayor for Life" Marion Barry, city officials, and the Ellis brothers - Malik and Roy - who have been instrumental in the redevelopment of the $29 million project.

"Shaw is back and here to stay," intoned Roy "Chip" Ellis, president and CEO of the Ellis Development Group and a fourth-generation Washingtonian. "We built this theatre for the future. We want to thank all of you here. We felt your will, felt your will of wanting this theatre to come back."

Oftentimes it was difficult to hear the speakers above the incessant chatter as people reconnected with longtime friends, acquaintances, old girlfriends and boyfriends, classmates and former colleagues. Among the sea of black faces, there was a smattering of whites, some who looked to be out of their element but who appeared to be happy to be a part of the grand occasion.

For much of the afternoon, bands such as the James Brown Experience played on a band shell erected cater-corner to the theatre. Dozens of chairs allowed visitors to sit and enjoy the music, reminisce and savor the fine weather. After the ribbon cutting and other formalities, a throng stood by the theatre's double doors to take a guided tour of the landmark. A number of couples hand-danced, performed intricate steps and shimmied to the high-octane music. Many wore beatific smiles that spoke to the enjoyment the activities of this day brought them.