Howard Theatre’s rebirth comes amid neighborhood’s dying past

His cousins liked to hide in the caskets. Richard Ables preferred more conventional spots — a closet, perhaps — during the hide-and-seek games they played as youngsters at his uncles’ funeral home in the 1950s.

Sometimes, the boys hung out on the front stoop, gazing across Florida Avenue NW at the crowds outside the Howard Theatre, then the District’s premier stage for black entertainers. On any given day, the boys might see Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington or Nat King Cole walk on by.

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.”

As always, however, there will be entertainment. Smokey Robinson, Wanda Sykes and Al Jarreau are among the stars slated to christen the Howard’s reopening, the culmination of a $29 million project sponsored by the District and the nonprofit Howard Theatre Restoration.

Around the corner, construction crews are completing a seven-story glass office building that will house the United Negro College Fund’s headquarters. New restaurants are opening, including the Bistro Bohem, whose owner, Jarek Mika, said he chose the location not because of its proximity to the Howard but because it’s within walking distance of his home. He claims no knowledge of the theater’s history.

Where Cecilia’s Stage Door was located, May Edoho is managing Wazobia, a tavern that features African and Caribbean cuisine. “We’re going to do everything we can to piggyback on what’s happening,” she said.

Next door, James Patterson, 75, a handyman, is happy to still have his cluttered cubbyhole of a storefront, a perch from which he has long told stories of his life, part of which was spent as the Howard’s janitor in the late 1960s.

“Man, I’m telling you,” Patterson said, leaning back in a worn swivel chair, “there was an echo in there that took all your troubles away.”

The faded lettering on his storefront reads “HJM Variety Shop,” but all that’s for sale these days are single cups of drip coffee, the single Newport cigarettes he keeps in a pocket, one jar of pickled eggs and three jars of kosher pickles. Mostly, his place is a clubhouse for him and his buddies, and a storage space for the red motorcycle he still likes to ride. The walls are covered with curling snapshots of old friends, many of them dead, and one famous face.

“James Brown,” Patterson said, recalling the entertainer’s unannounced visit in 2001. “He just sat here for 45 minutes, him and his bodyguards. Said he’d been walking through. People were coming in and out and telling him how much they loved him.”

Around the corner, on Seventh Street, Frank Love has cut hair at Gregg’s Barber Shop since 1961. His patrons have included members of James Brown’s band. Hanging from his mirrors are memorial programs for customers who have died, men from the neighborhood with nicknames such as “Catman” and “Billy Blue” (Sunrise: May 11, 1948, Sunset: Jan. 5, 2012).

“It’s all changed around here,” said Love, 77, shaving a customer’s sideburns and listing the names of a half dozen long-gone barbershops. He can’t wait for the Howard’s reopening and the chance to step inside the place where he went to see Jackie Wilson with his future wife, Pearl Love.

He knows the theater can’t be what it was, but he’s okay with that. “That was then, and this is now,” he said. “You can’t look for it to be the same.”

Fleet of hearses

At the Hall Brothers Funeral Home, Ables’s wood-paneled office is a chaotic mix of the past and present. There are stacks of American Funeral Director magazines circa 2002; an old fridge and a TV; a tombstone tucked behind a pile of books and an electric typewriter, the name “Leon” all that’s visible; and ledger books in which the Hall brothers listed the names of the dead in neat script.

Otto Thornton, a “stable man,” died of a gunshot wound March 8, 1943, according to one entry. As with all the names in that year’s book, the Hall brothers listed the dead’s race as “colored.”

O.D. and M.G. Hall’s business thrived at a time when only a handful of District funeral homes catered to African Americans. In the 1960s, while crowds poured into the Howard to see Marvin Gaye or the Temptations, the brothers had a fleet of hearses and limos, an ambulance and a casket showroom, and hosted as many as four wakes at the same time. They employed an embalmer who was so overwhelmed by the nine bodies that he had in his lab one day that he asked a 12-year-old boy, who usually performed more mundane chores, to help prepare them for burial.

“He said, ‘Dress ’em like a baby,’ ” recalled Robert Smith, 55, who still works at Hall Brothers. “And I said, ‘Really?’ ”

The Hall brothers, he recalled, were courteous, well-coiffed men who always lightened the mood at a wake with a joke or two. Like the one about the undertaker: He’s the last person to let you down.

“I’d say, ‘You got all these people laughing, and there’s a dead body in there,’ ” Smith said. “And Mr. Hall would say, ‘You got to keep them happy, because as long as they’re happy, your pocket will be happy.’ ”

Ables, an affable, soft-spoken man, likes to refer to burials as “cases,” his discussions with potential clients as “conferences” and people who have died as having “expired.”

“It’s prettier,” he explained.

He, too, enjoys the occasional one-liner. “Ask me how business is,” he said, not waiting to volunteer his own chortling answer. “Dead.”

After sweeping the stoop and polishing the brass railings at the entrance for his uncles, Ables graduated to helping with wakes and funerals. By 1979, when he joined the business full time, the Howard Theatre was shuttered, the Hall brothers had died or had retired and their business was past its peak, the decline accelerating as competition grew and blacks migrated from Shaw.

If the Hall brothers were performing 350 funerals a year at their height, Ables said, he’s lucky to get half that number, a performance that has made him try, with little success, to advertise in places that could draw patrons who are white, Hispanic, Indian and Ethiopian. “It’s diminished; it’s not dying,” Ables said of his business. “It will come back. Everyone still knows us.”

He plans to repair the water stains on his first-floor ceiling, mend his tattered awning and restore the toppled “B” in the otherwise handsome Hall Brothers sign over the entrance. He wants his place to look as inviting as everything else in the neighborhood, including the new Howard Theatre across the street.

Whether he ever steps inside to watch a show is another question. The stars he most wants are dead.

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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