Celebs Flock to Howard Theatre Gala

Shevry Lassiter | 4/19/2012, 3:52 p.m.

U Street's Crown Jewel Glitters on Opening Night

It was only fitting, that organizers of the grand opening gala of the Howard Theatre put on a Motown-styled celebration honoring legendary Motown founder and entertainment icon Berry Gordy Jr.

A galaxy of stars, a cross-section of entertainment royalty, strolled across the purple carpet which signaled the regal nature of the occasion. As they entered the 101-year-old landmark, photographers jostled to capture the perfect images of Gordy, Smokey Robinson, Dionne Warwick, Martha Reeves, Savion Glover and a host of other luminaries and dignitaries.

"I think it was critical to get the theatre reopened. The renovation is superb and it's going to revitalize this whole area and I'm so happy that we could be a part of it," said Cathy Hughes, founder and president of Radio One.

Benefactors and guests dined on a sumptuous $1,000 a-plate-meal which included hors d'oeuvres that ranged from smoked salmon to barbequed duck breasts and a main course of shrimp and dirty rice, BoBo chicken and braised short ribs with spiced, braised cowpeas and smoky collard greens, thanks to acclaimed New York chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson.

Roy and Malik Ellis - principals of the Ellis Development Group which oversaw the $29 million renovation project - welcomed guests while D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) brought greetings from their respective bodies.

Opening acts preceded the flowing tributes as guests enjoyed performances by George Duke with Al Jarreau, Dianne Reeves, Glover and Howard University's vocal ensemble Afro Blue. Comedian, actor and philanthropist Bill Cosby offered a tribute to jazz that featured veteran pianist and composer Joe Sample and David Yarborough. And Dionne Warwick paid homage to the women of jazz that featured Chrisette Michele. Comedians Wanda Sykes and Dick Gregory both performed short routines, much to the delight of the crowd.

French musician and harmonica player Frederic Yonnet; R&B vocalists Raheem DeVaughn, Tanya Blount and James Ingram along with former members of the Temptations, Platters and Drifters performed a medley of songs from Motown Records as well as popular tunes by Washington D.C.'s native son Marvin Gaye.

"This gala was fabulous. I particularly enjoyed Savion Glover's tap dance performance and Afro Blue and of course, Dianne Reeves," said Bonita Bing who lives in Northeast.

But she also appreciated the theatre's new look.

"What impressed me most was the interior and architecture of the theatre," Bing said.

"This was my first time ever visiting the Howard. I've heard how people used to stand in long lines to wait to see performers like James Brown and I think if they bring the right acts they will again have people lining up to catch a performance," she said with a smile.

The Howard Theatre located in the Shaw community in Northwest, was built in 1910 and was the nation's first major theater that catered to African Americans. It was known as "The Theatre for the People." Seating 1,500, one of the theatre's early and noted patrons was Louisiana Governor P.B.S. Pinchback, America's first governor of African descent. Local groups also held variety shows, meetings, church services and Sunday afternoon concerts there.

Samuel H. Stiefel bought the Howard Theatre in 1931 and Duke Ellington opened with a new era of big bands on stage with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attending birthday balls at the theatre. Amateur nights at the Howard launched the careers of a number of entertainers who went onto international acclaim, including Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Billy Taylor and the original Supremes.

"The show was amazing and brought back so many memories. I used to sit in the balcony and bum-rush the shows so I could see the Miracles. I was the head of the Miracles Fan Club," said Sheila Eldridge, a New Jersey resident who made the trip down for the gala and benefit concert.

Sample, 73, echoed the comments of many guests.

"This is like being in the middle of a black history moment."

Saxophonist Jimmy Heath, 85, said being at the theatre brought back fond memories.

"I played here in 1950 with 'Dizzy' Gillespie when the theatre wasn't this hip. It feels like a rebirth."