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.”
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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.”