D.C.’s Howard Theatre: What made it an essential sanctuary of black Washington?

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March 29, 2012

Marvin Gaye sang his debut hit “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” when he returned to the Howard Theatre in October 1962 with the first Motown tour. The audience went wild over its hometown son. His mother, who was in the audience, poked everyone around her and told them, “That’s my boy!” The lineup included Marv Johnson, Mary Wells, the Miracles, the Marvelettes and the Vandellas. The Supremes, making their stage debut, were the opening act. Miles Davis had been a headliner the previous week.

Before New York’s Apollo Theater, there was the Howard. Built in 1910, it was the first legitimate theater in the country open to African Americans. The Howard Theatre helped make Washington the early cultural capital of black America. Over 60 years, virtually every top African American entertainer performed on its stage, including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, the Drifters, Ruth Brown, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Ike & Tina Turner.

Going to the Howard at Seventh & T in the District’s Shaw neighborhood was a part of growing up for generations of Washingtonians, some of whom went on to achieve fame of their own. Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun said he got his doctorate in black music there. One of its ragtime musicians taught Billy Taylor to play piano. After Billy Eckstine won several amateur night contests at the Howard, theater manager Shep Allen told the teenager he was a professional, lent him a tuxedo and booked him to do a show. Shirley Horn said a show she saw there made her switch from classical piano to jazz. Pearl Bailey danced in the chorus line while taking voice lessons. And Duke Ellington often won the theater’s band contests with his first quintet, the Duke’s Serenaders.

The Howard closed in 1970, a victim of desegregation, competition from larger venues and the 1968 riots. A 1975 reopening lasted only two weeks. Occasional shows followed, but it wasn’t the same. The theater was a go-go palace when it finally closed in the early ’80s.

With the Howard Theatre set to reopen this week, here’s a look at its legendary past through the eyes of people who were touched by it.

***

Gloria Thomas Gantt, 85, was a cashier at the Howard from 1959 to 1970. She became a manager for shows in the late ’70s.

I worked with Tina Turner, James Brown, B.B. King, Gladys Knight & the Pips. All of the big stars, I got a chance to work with them.

The Temptations had people all up and down the aisle. At that time, they were Number One. They were the star of the show. The women used to go crazy. Throw up their bras and underwear and everything onstage. Then they would write down their phone numbers. The star of the show, David Ruffin, would come down into the audience [when he sang] “My Girl.” If you were sitting there, he would sing to you. He would take the numbers and put them in his pocket and just keep right on singing. He never missed a beat.

Women would call me at the box office. “Could you tell me where so and so in James Brown’s band, where they are stayin’?” I’d say, “Honey, that’s a good question, ’cause I don’t know.” But somehow they would come in and go backstage, and they would find ’em.

People loved Ray Charles because he was a blues man. He gave you your money’s worth. When the people wanted him to sing more, he would say, “Mr. Allen, [the theater’s manager] are you paying any more money?” Mr. Allen would be standing in the back, and he would laugh. He’d say, “Oh, well. Okay. I’ll do it.” Aretha [Franklin] was there [too]. She was the star of the show. When they asked her would she sing another number, she’d go, “Uh-uh.” And walk off.

B.B. King was like an old country boy. He wanted to know where he could find potato salad and greens and chitlins. I said, “There’s several places up here. But if you really want some good potato salad,” I said, “I can make you some.” He said, “You?” I said, “Yeah.” Then I made him some potato salad and greens. I had to get the lady that worked for me to fix the chitlins. He said, “Oh, you so sweet. Will you cook for me all week?” And I said, “Oh, no, baby. I can’t do no all-week cookin’.”

Then on Thursday night when the show was over there would be an envelope. He would give the manager, Mr. Evans, the envelope. I would always receive a bonus from the stars when they would leave on the last day — a couple hundred dollars. Because they say that I packed the people in.

***

Bobby Bennett, 73, is the only living member of the Famous Flames, James Brown’s backup group.

We performed at the Howard in 1959. We had lines and lines around the theater to get in. We had packed housesevery time we came here. The theater would be full every show, even the matinee.

The girls would be everywhere. Everywhere you go, front and back of the theater trying to get you. Trying to pick out who they want to be with. That’s the way it was. They would take your jewelry off your hands if they could get it. If you had any jewelry around your neck, they would snatch it off. Break the chain and take it.

Our best-seller was “Please, Please, Please.” When we sang “Please, Please, Please,” we would go out right on the front of the stage. I’m performing, and I reach down and shake your hand. That’s how they would take the jewelry. I lost a ring. I lost a cross I had around my neck. I had a mezuzah. It had the Lord’s Prayer in there. They snatched it off.

We were the biggest thing out there. Nothing else could touch us. We came here when Martin Luther King was killed. Petey Greene told us to come. He was a disc jockey. He had a show. We flew from Detroit on our Learjet. People were burning down the whole city. Breaking in businesses. Everybody was out in the street. They went and took furniture and everything else. We told the people to go home — to quit acting a fool. Nobody touched the Howard Theatre. The theater was still intact.

***

Harold Winley, 78, is the only surviving original member of the Clovers, who launched their career at the Howard Theatre in 1952.

It was 50 cents for kids. I was hustling and scuffling and doing everything else to try to get money to go to the theater. We would go to the first show. That’s what kids would do. You go to the first show, and you see two shows. And if you’re going to stay for the third show, you move your seat, because the usher is going to get you out of there because the adults are coming in now for the evening. They’ll kindly ask you to leave. So you go up in the balcony somewhere.

I’ve seen parents go in there and get their kids out of the theater. They’d go right in the theater and say, “I know you’re in here somewhere.” Go get the usher and start looking for ’em.

Midnight shows when the Sweethearts of Rhythm would play there, you talkin’ about something exciting. That was an all-girl band, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. They had a lead saxophonist — name was Vi Burnside. They were all excellent musicians, but when Vi Burnside got up, the theater would come alive. She swung her horn. She might hit a note and then take the horn out of her mouth and [swing the horn over her shoulder]. You see a man do that, and you say, “Yeah.” But then you see a woman do it and say, “Hell, yeah!” She could play. She could play.

I remember the first time I saw Chuck Berry at the Howard [in the ’50s]. That was during the time of “Maybelline.” Why can’t you be true? I was wondering how the people were going to accept him. Because his music was more white than it was black. He really tore the place up. When he went into that duck walk, that sealed it.

***

David Akers, 56, is a singer and played trumpet for Wilson Pickett from 1984 to 1999. His father was the doorman at the Howard Theatre from about 1924 to 1970.

When the Motown Revue would come through, my father would take the five of us backstage. He knew I could sing. So he’d have me audition for Smokey Robinson and everybody backstage.

Motown [would] come in with five or six groups and do two or three shows a day. Between shows they would all gather around: the Contours, Junior Walker & the All Stars, the Supremes, the [Four] Tops. “Let’s hear the kid sing.” So, I’d go sing.

I sang in front of Diana Ross. I must have been 9, 10, 11. She told me I was cute, I was a great singer. “It’ll be coming for you, son. Just keep on singing.” It felt incredible. I thought I was going to be a superstar.

We had family in Detroit. I often asked my dad, “Why didn’t you take me to Detroit so I could sing and be a star?” He said, “Well, Detroit came here. You could do it right here.”

Otis Redding, he killed me one night. He sang a song called “Try a Little Tenderness.” It’s a ballad. He’s singing softly and smoothly. But by the end of that song, everybody is screaming ’cause he is getting so into it. It just got bigger and bigger. The horns are screaming, and he’s down there just beating his leg [on to the floor] and, “Got to! Got to! Got to!” So powerful. God, I can just feel it. It’s like going to church, you know.

I knew he was probably going to do the song. But I didn’t know it was going to take my insides and put it outside, expose my whole being right there. At the end of the song, you’re shaking and screaming, “One more time. One more time.” But he was gone.

***

Sandra Bears, 68, is a member of the Jewels. The Howard Theatre helped launch the female vocal group in the early ’60s.

The exciting part about going to the Howard Theatre: If you’re lucky enough to see one of the stars come out the side door, you could maybe get an autograph. I remember getting Clyde McPhatter’s autograph. All I had was the top of a popcorn box, and he signed it. I kept it forever. I think I slept on it under my pillow.

To make it to the Howard Theatre was the ultimate dream come true. If you were hot and on your way and in D.C., you’d be performing at the Howard. We were nervous and excited and scared all at the same time. We were young girls right out of Roosevelt High School. Somebody bought us dresses with crinoline slips. That’s what you wore back then. We had on pink dresses with crinoline slips and high heels. A lot of our friends from school were in the audience. They could see in our faces, “The Howard Theatre! Can you believe it?!” It was the best.

If you played the theater, you made sure you signed your name on the wall backstage. There were a lot of names on there, everybody who ever played there. We made sure we put our name on that wall, too.

***

Jazz organist Jackie Hairston, 73, moved to Washington in 1961 to perform in local nightclubs. During the day, he’d go to the Howard Theatre. He left to go on tour with Otis Redding in 1964.

I always tried to go to see all the jazz shows — all the jazz greats, you know: Miles Davis, Jimmy Smith, John Coltrane, Ray Charles. Right next door to the Howard Theatre, there was this little place, Cecilia’s, where all the musicians would hang out after the shows.

My idol was Jimmy Smith. He was the world’s greatest jazz organist. He was my favorite. I never missed any of his concerts. Around 1963, I was performing at a club called Kelly’s Lounge, around the corner from the Howard on Seventh Street. I was practicing at the club on the organ one day when Jimmy Smith walked in. He was on break from the Howard Theatre. He was outside the club and heard the organ and came upstairs.

I looked around and saw him. I recognized him as soon as he walked in. He’s a very funny guy. And the first thing he said to me was: “You don’t know how to play. Get out of the way. Let me show you how to play.”

It didn’t offend me in the least. I was just awestruck, you know. He sat down and started playing, and I asked him, I said, “How did you do that?” “How did you do that?” “How did you go about doing this?” “Why is this?” “And why is that?” I asked so many questions. And he took the time to teach me. Oh, God, it was just unbelievable.

I think about that a lot. It was a life-changing experience for me.

***

Harold Mann, 80, was the drummer in the Howard Theatre orchestra from 1957 to 1962.

The best show I ever played at the Howard was one called the Jewel Box Revue. That was mostly female impersonators. The male impersonator was the emcee. They put together one great show.

One imitated Bette Davis and Pearl Bailey. He was white, but he did a great job. Then, there was another one called Bruno. Bruno was a split personality. One half of his body was covered with a tuxedo and slicked down hair and the other half was a flowing evening gown. And he danced by himself. But from the audience, it looked like two people dancing because of the way he made his turns, he was either a man or a woman. And he wound up his act by groping the woman and then slapping himself on the face.

My grandfather I took one day. He was visiting from Chattanooga. He said, “Harold, those are some of the best-looking women I’ve ever seen.” But he knew they were men.

I enjoyed playing their show. It was popular. The audience was always very, very mixed. Of course, they’d have a lot of gay people, but they’d have a lot of straight people there, also.

The only thing that discouraged me was the fact that they were more or less harassed. The fire department came down two or three times checking their dresses and equipment to see if they were fire retardant. They’d put a cigarette lighter to their costumes to make sure they didn’t burn. They needed some reason to harass them or to put them out of business.

***

Warren Shadd, owner of Shadd Pianos, went to see shows at the Howard in the ’60s, when his father was the theater’s piano tuner. He was a drummer in the band at the 1975 reopening.

They brought down a screen and played cartoons before they actually had the stage show. And one of the special things about the Howard Theatre was they had these shimmery curtains, right, sort of a champagne color. You would see the musicians behind the shimmery curtain because it was relatively sheer. You would see them getting up on the bandstand. That was a very exciting moment. And you would hear the musicians warming up just like you do in an orchestra, tuning up their horns. And you knew showtime was about to come. The microphone would come up out of the floor. To have a microphone come out of the floor and go up to five feet in the air — that was pretty high tech at that time. And then Charles Hampton and his band would play.

I remember seeing the Delfonics. When the Delfonics came to the Howard Theatre, they were a big act. They were the new, hot R&B soul band. I was standing at the stage door on the side of the theater. They came in their old Ford station wagon with the wood panels on the side. Their big record at the time was “La La Means I Love You.” La la la la la means I love you. I love you. You know those little gold and black sticker things you [use to] put your numbers on your house? They had La La Means I Love You on the side back window of that car.

When the Howard reopened, I was the drummer in the big band. Harry “Sweets” Edison came in from Los Angeles to lead it. He was a big shot. He was in Sammy Davis Jr.’s band at that time. I got a lot of other gigs from playing that. Harry told me, “Duffy Jackson just got fired. Sammy Davis just fired him, and they need a drummer. How about you?” I’m like, “Yeah. Let’s go.” So I skipped 11th grade. Hey, it’s once in a lifetime.

***

Singer Jimi Smooth, 66, was an usher at the Howard Theatre in the early ’60s.

I would come from school, go to the Howard Theatre. I would be there for all the shows. I was young, maybe 14, 15. I didn’t have much money. So I’d hang around to see the acts coming and going. Nancy Wilson, Bobby “Blue” Bland, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Joe Tex, Dinah Washington, Brook Benton — I saw all these people firsthand.

A group of us used to hang out there every day. A guy finally gave me a job as an usher. I got to see more shows. I could go backstage. It was so amazing to see these people, to be around these people.

Redd Foxx would come through there. Before he got “Sanford and Son,” he was a standup comedian. But he was a raunchy comedian, telling jokes and stuff. He was a favorite at the Howard Theatre.

When Redd come to town, hell, it was a party on the corner. He’d go in the barber shop and mingle with the guys, the older guys. Go in the pool room, shoot pool between shows and have people laughing. All the guys knew him. You had hot [stolen] clothes come through there. He might buy something. It was like Hollywood back then. The street was so lit up.

Miles Davis would come in for the jazz show. Miles would turn his back to the audience and play the trumpet to the floor. I thought that was rude. But that was him. That was him. That was his style. He did that everywhere.

But me, young at the time, I didn’t know that I would be looking at the greatest entertainers in the world in history. I didn’t know this when I saw these guys like Ahmad Jamal, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey. It wasn’t my thing. I wanted to see rock-and-roll. I didn’t know I was looking at genius and the greats until later on.

***

Robert “Mousey” Thompson, 55, was James Brown’s drummer from 1993 to 2006. He saw his first show at the Howard Theatre around age 5.

My mom and dad used to take me there. We would go watch movies. One night we’d gone, and the movie was over. And I see this microphone coming out of the floor. The next thing I know, I hear a timpani drum. I’m like, “What is going on here?” I’m hearing someone come over the loudspeaker. “Welcome to the Howard Theatre.” This band strikes up, hittin’ it real hard. My soul has been touched by somethin’. I don’t know what’s going on.

Next thing I know, this man comes out on the stage, and he’s dancin’ away. It happens to be James Brown. The Howard Theatre is pretty much what got me into the entertainment business. I watched James Brown hit that stage, and I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “This is what I want to do” — the Howard Theatre and James Brown kicking something in my spirit to do what I do today. To have eventually wound up working with him is incredible.

It hurt to drive by and see that place closed and dilapidated. One time I had gone by [and asked,] “Who can I talk to about getting this building?” The next minute, you know, you see a fence wrapped around it. I think everybody was hurt when that theater was finally closed.

When we did the groundbreaking, I teared up. Quite a few people teared up knowing that [it’s] going to be open again, because black people had nothing. The Howard Theatre gave us someplace to go. It was ours.

***

Ayana “Ann” Harrell, 61, and her sisters Mia and Avis were singers in the Fawns. They performed at the Howard Theatre in 1970.

The Marvelettes had the best stage show. They had more dance music, like “Please, Mr. Postman” and “Don’t Mess With Bill.” They had the best choreography. They were sassy — sassy in their movement and sassy in their delivery. [For] “Don’t Mess With Bill,” [it was] hands on your hip, shaking your finger at the female audience that might think about messing with their boyfriend.

We were typical teenagers, you know, screaming and going crazy. We’d be singing along and dancing and clapping and just totally excited, because you probably had worn the grooves off of that 45 and played it so many times. It was just like having that record come alive. It became real to you, and it was magical. You hung on to that memory when you went home and put that 45 on again.

We only performed there once. We had a local hit called “Bless You” at that time. We had these black pantsuits that had fringe on the arm. Joe Simon was the headliner. It was amazing. We felt like we were living our dream. We just got very lucky. The Howard was going downhill. There weren’t many acts coming through there like it had been. We were just very grateful that we could say we got the opportunity to perform at the Howard, because it’s an iconic place. That was an indelible moment for us.

We had no idea that that would be the last show there. I don’t think anybody really knew. Our name and that particular show stayed on the marquee for years, I understand. It was closed down and boarded up, but they just hadn’t taken the marquee down.

Susan Mandel is a freelance writer based in Washington. To comment on this story, send an e-mail to wpletters@washpost.com.

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