The rain pattered down-on the stage. Defiant litttle smacks of water behind the red curtain. The floor of the theater was dirty, the seats full of hard lumps. A mouse darted past the front row.
Michael Graham surveyed the dimly lit theater barely half an hour before the Young Washingtonians amateur show was scheduled to begin. No audience had arrived, and neither had any of the amateurs.
"Well," he said, a full smile on his face. "There's a lot of room."
The Howard Theater, on 6th and T Streets NW, is not what it once was in the '50s and '60s when it was virtually a shrine to black musical and comedy talent-Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, Ottis Redding, Van McCoy, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley.
But Michael Graham is still the emcee, the promoter of local talent, the entrepreneur who convinced night-clubs around town they really wanted to host an amateur show on a slow night back when those things were popular.
Three years ago, he started an annual amateur night to showcase young Washington talent. The Young Washingtonians played again Saturday night despite pouring rain and less than a full house (50 or so, with vocal support from friends and relatives.)
"Nobody gets a chance to see these people," Graham said about the performers, who included three bands, one magician, the Flying Nesbits (tumblers-about-town who performed their gymnastics act in last year's Young Washingtonians) and falsetto crooner Robert Jackson who sang high enough to make Smokey Robinson blush.
'No one seems to bother with the young," Graham said. If they're any good at performing, they just get ripped off. They get paid too little."
Graham and Coolidge High School senior Mark Jordan find local talent who have performed at parks and school concerts. The Howard Theater Foundation (not related to Howard University) rents the theater to Graham for virtually nothing. Graham gives them what he can for maintenance, culled from the sparse ticket sales ( $3 a piece).
The result ranged from the strong, professional sounds of Trapp (a popular music group in early 20s) to the younger (15 to 24 years) Bussey Brothers who played key-board, drums, guitars. They were joined for two numbers by their cousin, 15-year-old Arienne Wilson, and their sister, Pamela, 16, who sang a pop tune called "It's Got to Be Real" as well as (if not better than) the performer who put it on the carts.
The audience could be rough. "Can't nobody hear you," someone called out to magician Walter Howell, a 17-year-old student at Oxon Hill Senior High.
"I said I didn't expect that many people, said Graham, looking over the audience. "But these kids need a theater to perform in. They can jsut go out there on stage-the lights are so bright they can just imagine the theater's full."