Ables is 71 now, an owner and manager of what is still known as the Hall Brothers Funeral Home. From beneath his tattered green awning, his view of the Howard is unchanged. Only now, he’s watching the theater’s long-awaited rebirth, which kicks off Monday after decades of shuttered disrepair.
As a funeral man, Ables knows the craftsmanship required to make the dead presentable, and he appreciates the workers who have restored the Howard’s facade. But he knows that a soul is more elusive and that no one can resurrect the Howard’s rollicking days, when James Brown’s presence made the neighborhood shiver, when the funeral home was booming, and their stoop was at the center of African American life in Washington.
“You could see the crowds at the ticket booth, all dressed up. It was like our little Times Square,” Ables recalled, his smile framed by a white beard. “It can’t be like the ’50s and ’60s when it was the place to go. It’s gone.”
The Howard is returning to a part of the city that is nothing like it was even a decade ago, let alone 1970, when the theater closed before opening sporadically throughout the ’80s. Beginning in the 1990s, as developers seized on the area, professionals moved into new condos and renovated rowhouses, eventually tripling median home sale prices to $629,000. African Americans now account for less than half of Shaw and LeDroit Park, the neighborhoods surrounding the Howard, although the areas were nearly 80 percent black a generation ago.
Yet, a sizable population remains that remembers U Street when it was known as the Black Broadway, the main artery for African Americans in a segregated city. Back then, the Howard was a stop on what was called the “chitlin circuit,” theaters that showcased black stars such as Pearl Bailey, Moms Mabley and the Mills Brothers.
For those Washingtonians, the Howard’s rebirth stirs a mix of curiosity and excitement for what is new, and nostalgia and melancholy for what has been lost.
“It looks like a mausoleum to me,” said Juan Rosebar, 61, eyeing the theater on a recent afternoon, as workers laid cobblestones on the street outside.
A lost world
As a kid, Rosebar watched the stars migrate from the Howard to Cecilia’s Stage Door, a bar a few yards away where they’d mix with their fans and drink post-performance cocktails. Cecilia’s closed long ago, as did Jimmy’s Golden Cue, the pool hall across the street where Rosebar learned to hustle. All that’s left is Jimmy’s rusted sign, the letters barely legible.
“You can’t turn the clock back,” Rosebar said. “You won’t get the scene; you won’t get the flamboyance.”