Though a prime piece of real estate in a bustling area, U Street’s historic Lincoln Theatre has lay dormant for years. It wasn’t always that way.
“A bunch of different people did a lot of different things [there] at different times,” says I.M.P. chairman and 9:30 Club co-owner Seth Hurwitz of the theater, which has had many owners and identities since its opening in 1921. Back then, the neighborhood was known as Black Broadway, and the Lincoln functioned as a silent film and vaudeville theater serving black audiences.
In 1927, it was converted into a movie theater. Four decades later, the whole corridor bore the brunt of the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Rebuilding took decades. In 1981, the Lincoln shut down, seemingly for good.
But in 1989, the theater received
$4 million in federal funds for restoration, and it reopened in 1994, hosting local events such as the annual Reel Affirmations lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender film festival. In 2007, the city took ownership of it as a historic landmark.
Still, programming at the Lincoln remained scattered and sparse. Then, last year, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities took over and asked Bethesda-based I.M.P. (it stands for “It’s My Party”), which books shows for the 9:30 Club and Merriweather Post Pavilion, to fill the stage regularly.
D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities executive director Lionell Thomas says that “all great cities … are defined by their cultural institutions,” which is why he was anxious to get life breathed back into the once-hopping venue.
“It will become a world-class destination again,” Thomas says. “This marks a new chapter in its history.”
Hurwitz and his bookers know how to bring the party, and the Lincoln has a built-in cache similar to the recently revamped Howard Theatre. “We want this to feel like a special night out when you go see a show here,” he says.
The Lincoln Theatre Then and Now
THEN: Duke Ellington
Shaw resident and jazz king Duke Ellington, memorialized with a mural at 12th and U streets NW (which is now down for repairs), frequented his neighborhood movie theater at the start of his career. He’d also perform music in the rear concert space.
THEN: Dave Chappelle
The Duke Ellington School of Arts grad riffed on race and segregation in his hometown when he recorded his 2000 special “Killin’ Them Softly” at the Lincoln.
NOW: Chuck D
Legendary rapper Chuck D kicks off the venue’s first weekend of shows on Saturday, performing songs from his 2010 record “I Don’t Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin’.”
NOW: KT Tunstall
Scottish singer-songwriter Tunstall’s 2005 song “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” scored a Grammy nom. She’s sure to perform it on her Sept. 28 date at the theater.
Playing in October:
The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, Neko Case, Cheech & Chong (yep, they’re still smokin’), and Janelle Monae.Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW; Chuck D performs Sat., 6:30 p.m., $33.75; 202-328-6000. (U Street)