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.
The Howard Theatre reopens
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.