Lincoln Theatre’s revival ushers in a gilded age for music fans

The Lincoln Theatre, Washington’s newest music venue, is also one of its oldest, a 1922 classicist temple with a gold-accented lobby, seats covered in dusky velveteen and wallpaper that blooms with bold white flowers and exotic birds. Grand box seats overlook the stage, giving the place the chic feeling of a Parisian concert hall.

CBGB, it’s not.

But the historic theater that for decades sat largely dark on a prime stretch of U Street could become a symbol of a new gilded age for concertgoing, in which venues look to provide an all-the-bells-and-whistles experience that extends beyond music.

On Wednesday, Laura Marling, the angelic British folk singer with a lilting voice and fierce command of the acoustic guitar, will take the stage in the first performance at 1215 U Street NW since I.M.P., the company that operates the 9:30 Club and Merriweather Post Pavilion, won its bid in June to take over the theater’s day-to-day affairs.

“You look at these chandeliers, you look at these seats. This is an ‘oooh, ahh’ sort of place,” says Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of I.M.P. “You walk in and you think, ‘I’m at the theater. This is a night out. This is entertainment. This is glamorous.’ And that’s how you should feel.”

How does the revived theater compare to other music venues in the Washington area?

Luxury like this is no longer an anomaly for Washington concertgoers, as venues that opened in the past three years stray further from the grungy, rock-club model.

At the Hamilton downtown, concertgoers can snack on sushi while they wait for the headliners. At the Howard Theatre, the historic D.C. concert hall that reopened on T Street NW last year after a nearly $30 million renovation, jumbo screens give fans a better view of the action. And at the Fillmore in Silver Spring, you have your choice of standing under glitzy chandeliers or upgrading to seats.

Hurwitz likens the emphasis on experience to what has occurred with movie theaters, which have amped up the amenities, adding cushy recliners, alcohol and salads in an effort to lure moviegoers after a decade of declining ticket sales.

What sets the Lincoln apart from the other new and restored music venues is that it falls under the charge of I.M.P., which has for decades reliably filled venues with of-the-moment acts.

The Lincoln’s capacity is about the same as its sister venue, the 9:30 Club, but there will be key differences. Shows will be seated, most with reserved seats, so the typical ticket price is higher, upwards of $35, rather than the 9:30’s usual $25, in line with theater-style venues such as the nearly-2,000 capacity Strathmore. The nachos and sandwiches popular at the V Street club aren’t likely to ever be served at the Lincoln; the theater doesn’t have a kitchen to prepare such fare.

The Lincoln’s layout also will make it more suited to theater productions, movie screenings and comedy. “This American Life” radio personality Ira Glass will close the Bentzen Ball Comedy Festival on Oct. 13, and stoner- comedy duo Cheech and Chong will yuk it up on Oct. 24. But the first batch of bookings — pompadoured R&B princess Janelle Monae, Soundgarden rocker Chris Cornell and British star KT Tunstall — suggests concerts will largely drive the theater’s renewal.

“We have a lot of people who’ve played the 9:30 a number of times,” Hurwitz says. “They love the 9:30, they love our staff, and we’re friends, but I can’t blame them if they think, ‘Where else can we play?’ This gives us a chance to offer someone another place to play. It’s good for them, it’s good for the audience.”

The theater had long been on Hurwitz’s wish list. Over the past 10 years, I.M.P. rented it for more than a dozen performances, including George Clinton, the Swell Season and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. The Lincoln, which had been well maintained, required very few updates after I.M.P.’s winning bid was announced in June. Visitors got a peek inside when the city screened the film “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” there last year.

The theater also has deep significance for longtime residents of Washington.

The Lincoln was the stomping grounds of the District’s African American elite during segregation. A grand movie house occupied the front, while music legends such as Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and the District’s own Duke Ellington played to packed houses in a rear ballroom, known as the Colonnade.

After desegregation, the venue’s music audience drifted, and in the ’60s, the Colonnade was torn down. By the ’70s, kung-fu double features flickered on the big screen as the Lincoln served as a haven (along with Ben’s Chili Bowl) from the open-air drug market that filled U Street. The Lincoln was then shuttered for more than decade, but the District bought it and fully renovated it in 1993.

Since then, rentals — by theater companies, including Arena Stage, and community groups — have kept the lights on, though not without frequent grants from the city’s coffers. That revolving door of movie screenings and short-run plays didn’t meet the city’s vision for the Lincoln, particularly because the Howard Theatre, one of Washington’s other landmarks of black history, was well on its way to reopening.

The rest of the U Street and 14th Street corridors also suddenly seemed flush with bustling bars and restaurants. A growing number of 20- and 30-somethings had moved into the District. It didn’t make sense that the Lincoln, still so breathtaking inside, was dark.

In January 2012, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities assumed control of the Lincoln, which was effectively bankrupt, from the non-profit U Street Theatre Foundation that operated the venue.

Lionell Thomas, executive director of the commission, says the Lincoln of the past two decades “was sort of disjointed. It needed to be an institution where people can wrap their hands around what kinds of performances could happen.”

Finding a new operator who could turn the theater around was Thomas’s first task as commissioner. I.M.P. was among the final trio of companies vying to run the theater, and the only one that was local. While others pitched filling seats with opera, theater, dance, spoken word and comedy, it was Hurwitz’s plain-spokenness and, perhaps, love for the city, that won over the panel of arts leaders that helped make the decision.

No one will say how long I.M.P. has signed on to operate the Lincoln Theatre, but Thomas says he expects that the partnership could last at least five years.

“The best way we can honor this theater is to keep it open,” Thomas says. “We want it to be the jewel of U Street that it once was. We have the perfect tenant to make that happen.”

Lavanya Ramanathan is a professional eater/drinker/thinker for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. University of Texas. Northwestern University. Rap fan.
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