“My uncle worked here and used to sneak me in through the back door,” Watson said, raising her hands as the Harlem Gospel Choir sang “Total Praise.”
The theater, which largely sat fallow since it closed in 1970, reopened last week after a $29 million renovation.
The crowd got to choose among shrimp and grits, fried chicken, scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese, and collard greens, among other dishes. The menu was overseen by consulting chef Marcus Samuelsson, an internationally acclaimed restaurateur who was born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, and now has several culinary destinations, including the Red Rooster in Harlem.
Within the church crowd, Sunday brunch has become as much a part of the day’s ritual as Sunday School, said Trent, pastor of the 100-year-old Florida Avenue Baptist Church. The tradition has a special place in the hearts of many, allowing families to slow down and share a meal.
“Most people eat somewhere after church,” Trent said. “Here, they will be able to be steeped in our history, and what they heard on Sunday morning will be reinforced. This will be a gathering place. This will inspire folks.”
The Howard Theatre, which opened in 1910, was billed then as the “largest colored theater in the world.” The Supremes made their stage debut there in 1962. Over the decades, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, Ella Fitzgerald and scores of other stars performed at the venue at Seventh and T Streets NW in the Shaw neighborhood.
On Sunday, the brunch was packed with people of many races and ages. Some even found their way to the stage when the lead singer for the Harlem choir solicited voices to sing a line of the gospel favorite “Oh Happy Day.”
“You need to have something like this for the Christian community fellowship,” said Marylyn Walker, who came to brunch from Fort Washington.
Alphalue Chambers, 91, a member of Florida Avenue Baptist, made it to church Sunday, though not to the gospel brunch. She recalled the theater in its heyday: “Oh, we were always there when the bands came, and the shows,” she said.
And the young men? “The guys were in their suits and being very gentlemanly.”
Chambers saw Cab Callaway there, and Billy Eckstein too. And she recalled how Pearl Bailey handed members of the audience cups of hot coffee on an especially cold winter night in the early 1940s.
“I am so happy and pleased that it reopened,” Chambers said. “It’s different now, but I am still happy.”
Chambers, resplendent in a black dress and a white hat trimmed with black fishnet lace, plans to dine soon at the theater, and she reached into her pocketbook and pulled out a newspaper ad to prove it.
“I cut this out to take my friends,” she said.
So much has changed since the days when African American artists could perform only in venues such as the Howard Theatre. Stephanie Davis, who is engaged to be married, was at the gospel brunch with a table full of friends.
“I love gospel music,” said Davis, who is white. “I’m now living in Los Angeles, but when I heard about this, I decided to come because I plan to have gospel music in my wedding.”
Staff writer Deneen Brown contributed to this report.