The curtain finally rises on the reborn Howard Theatre

R.C. Freeman, whose friends call him “Sugar Free,” stood outside the Howard Theatre, grooving. Cutting the rug. Having a funky good time. Even after all these years, Sugar Free, 78, can still shake a leg. Cane in his right hand, he danced in his blue suit, waiting for Monday’s early afternoon ribbon-cutting at the famed landmark among landmarks in D.C. Waiting for the curtain to rise again on the Howard Theatre.

New York had its Apollo. D.C. had its Howard Theatre. If you could make it here, you could make it anywhere. It was the stage for Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Smokey Robinson, Pearl Bailey, James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Count Basie, the Drifters and Louis Armstrong.

Freeman saw them all at this theater — a place of refined elegance, glitter and polished shoes. When dressing up to go out at night was not an option.

“There were a few popular groups who would play the Howard, even when it was not making money,” the Brentwood resident recalled. “They would still come.”

The Howard had that kind of pull until it closed in 1970, except for intermittent openings. The musicians left. The music went silent. Inside, debris grew. But the crowds who remembered the shows on its stage never forgot its magnificence.

“When I saw it boarded up, I would cry,” said Virginia Hubbard, 62, a retired deputy clerk of the D.C. Superior Court, who also was at Monday’s Howard Theatre Community Day. “When I came last week, and I saw the boards off, I almost had an accident.”

* * *

The crowd showed up early. Busloads of elders from senior and community centers waited for the ribbon to be cut, but they were not in a hurry. Memories can’t be rushed.

First, the city’s dignitaries spoke: The Rev. Sandra Butler-Truesdale introduced them: D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D), Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).

“Is this a fantabulous day? Is this a fantabulous day? Is this a fantabulous day,” D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) asked the crowd.

“Even before I came to Washington, I heard about the Howard. The first thing I did in 1965 when I came here was come out and find out what this Howard was,” Barry said. “People wanted to tear the Howard down. I’m glad we didn’t.”

“The jewel of black intelligentsia is back,” Butler-Truesdale said. “It was a Herculean task. They thought it might not work. But the stars were properly aligned for this to happen. Welcome home Howard Theatre! Welcome home!”

The son and daughter of Duke Ellington climbed on stage.

“As the late, great Edward Duke Ellington would say, ‘We do love you madly!’ ” April Ellington said. “Welcome back, Howard Theatre.”

Malik Ellis, who with Chip Ellis, is a principal of Ellis Development and a trustee of the Howard Theatre Restoration, explained: “Back in 1910, black people couldn’t go to other theaters in the city. So they said, ‘We will build our own theater.’ They took great pride in building the facade. They built this building like a rock. This thing was built to last forever.”

The crowd roared. The band keyed up. The dignitaries in the front row leaned forward. “We wanted to make sure the first people who would step foot into the theater were from the community,” Malik Ellis said. “Before the dignitaries. Before the artists.”

When the wide purple ribbon stretched across the entrance was cut, the crowd surged forward from all directions. A woman with a cane pressed to get to the door. “Come on, girl,” she said to a woman next to her. “Let’s get our tour.”

As if on cue, Robert “Mousey” Thompson and the James Brown Experience band began to play. Thomson, who used to perform at the Howard, sang: “You going to have a funky good time. . . . Gotta take you higher . . . .”

The music soared over T Street outside the shining Howard, with its pale stucco and polished white columns. A glittery statue of Duke Ellington twirled on the roof. The crowd stretched down the street past Wilterberger Street, past what was once Celia’s, as far as Florida Avenue.

* * *

As those in the crowd waited, sometimes for hours, they told their stories. “I’m from Michigan,” said Glow Dean Catching, 65, a retired government worker who now lives in Greenbelt. “We would lie to our parents and tell them we were going to Chicago.” Instead, “We would drive all the way here to the Howard Theatre.” The crowd pressed. She stepped forward, an inch. “I hope it’s nice,” Catching said. “I hope they didn’t take a way a lot from back in the day.”

The band began to play Sam Cooke’s “It’s been a long time coming.”

The emcee took the mic: “It this a celebration or what? The energy out here is phenomenal.” But he told the crowd to be patient and listen to NuEra, performing a tribute to the Temptations.

The lead singer hit a note so fine, the crowd turned. Even those pressing for the entrance watched. “Since I lost my baby,” the lead singer crooned.

Adrienne Gillette, 56, a retired D.C. worker who lives in Forestville, remembered when she was a little girl, so young that she still wore her hair in three braids. She would stand at the side entrance with friends and peer through the door. “We would see James Brown. ‘Pleeeaaase. Pleeeaaase Pleeeaaase.’ One night, we ran in after him.” The stagehands shooed the little girls away. “But we wouldn’t leave. We would peek at the door and James Brown would fall down.”

Brenda Hall, 54, standing next to Gillette, picks up the story. “I said, ‘Is he all right?’ Then, he would get back up. And when he would come out that side door, he would give us a couple dollars.”

Until Monday, Gillette had never been inside the Howard. When her turn came, she walked through the gleaming doors. “Wow.” Gillettee squeezed her eyes tight. And for a moment, she was that little girl in three braids, peering through the stage door. And the Howard Theatre was alive again.

DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.
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