At 100th birthday party for storied Howard Theatre, hopes for a restoration

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010

Few things survive to see 100. Even fewer get reborn at that age.

On Sunday, a century to the date that the Howard Theatre opened as the first of its kind to showcase the talents of African American artists, hundreds gathered to celebrate its history and look toward its future.

"The Howard Theatre is still alive, still has hope for coming back and being the theater it's been for so many people for so many years," said Rodney Ellis, interim chairman of the Howard Theatre Restoration Board, the nonprofit organization behind the effort to reopen the theater.

The theater, on T Street NW in Shaw, which launched the careers of greats such as Ella Fitzgerald and Marvin Gaye, has sat dormant and in disrepair for decades, and efforts to revive it have fallen short. But Ellis said that if all goes as planned, a groundbreaking will be held next month for the theater's restoration, and it could open as early as November 2011.

So Sunday night was a tribute to a life lived well and a celebration of the chance to do it again. The party -- with live performances -- was held at the Carnegie Library on Mount Vernon Square, which houses the Historical Society of Washington.

"This is part of D.C.'s heritage, not just for black folks but white folks, too," said Ron Hillyer, a D.C. schools custodian for 32 years who attended the celebration. "Music is universal."

Hillyer stood aside from the performers, flipping through a gray photo album that contained water-stained photos of Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Dusty Fletcher, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong and others. Hillyer inherited the photographs from his grandfather, who owned a club up the road from the Howard.

He has offered copies of them to the people overseeing the restoration of the Howard, a place he remembers going with his father and feeling "like I was at this place I shouldn't have been. It was too good for me to be there."

An hour into the celebration, the Carnegie Library was filled with those who recalled attending go-go performances in the '80s and others who cut school in the late '40s to hear greats whose names became legend.

"Everybody's got a Howard story," said Jeannette Carson, who was student council president of Cardozo High School in 1950. She remembered the day the truant officer showed up at the theater and rounded up children from three schools who had skipped class to be there. "Everybody did it if the act was good."

Because the night was not just about the old Howard, Saleem Hylton performed under a combination of two group names: the Trojans/Commitment.

The former was the name of his group in high school that won a talent contest at the Howard Theatre, and the latter is the group he sings with now, one he hopes will one day be able to perform at the theater.

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