Henry Whitehead was misidentified in Sunday's Show section and in yesterday's Style section as the chairman of the Howard Theatre Foundation. He is the former chairman of that foundation. Barbara Yorrick is the foundation's executive director.
Billy Eckstine isn't the only one to call the Howard Theatre a "class act." His statement at the beginning of "The Howard Theatre: A Class Act" (WETA, 10 tonight) is echoed throughout this 40-minute program, not just in the words but in the warm gestures of those recounting that Washington landmark's 75 years of musical and social history. And make no mistake, the Howard's impact on the nation's capital was immense. It was at once a symbol of black pride and a source of cross-cultural information. Although Washington remained a Jim Crow town into the late '50s, singer Mary Jefferson recalls the Howard's integrated audiences. White people "did not care," she says. "They would sit beside you in a minute just to see these fantastic performers."
This thorough and affectionate tribute, funded by the D.C. Humanities Council and the WETA membership, looks at the Howard's glorious past, from its roots as a vaudeville house in the 1910s to its final incarnation as the home for Motown's revues in the late '60s. As Jefferson narrates, "From Shakespeare to 'Shuffle Along,' from big bands to be-bop, from rhythm and blues to rock, this corner at Seventh and T streets NW had it all."
Producer Jackson Frost and associate producers Jeff Bieber and Ellen Casey have collected reminiscences from Eckstine, pianist Billy Taylor and singer Pearl Bailey (all Washingtonians whose careers were enhanced by their associations with the Howard), as well as Ruth Brown (her rhythm and blues career blossomed after she was stranded outside the Howard by a touring jazz band). There are also stories from Howard Theatre Foundation president Henry Whitehead, Dr. Mercer Cook (his mother was the star of the theater's opening night), longtime Howard cashier Gloria Thomas, occasional emcee Michael Graham and Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun, whose R & B tastes were shaped at the Howard. Their recollections have an earthy immediacy that suggests that while the Howard may be boarded up these days, it lives on in the collective memory of those who were a part of its history.
Mary Jefferson, who grew up right behind the Howard, is the perfect narrator. The world came to her, she says, and when she recalls street encounters between stage-struck neighborhood children and various visiting stars, one realizes just how great a source of inspiration the Howard was, in terms of both musical and role models. Bailey recounts her enchantment with Ethel Waters at age 8: "This was who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do." For Taylor, it was the tux-clad Ellington band: "The only other people I'd ever seen dressed like that were in Life magazine."
The program uses vintage footage and still photographs to convey some of the magic of the theater (though little of the footage is from the Howard itself). The only problem, a minor one, is that the bulk of this history seems to be on the Howard's first 50 years, with less attention given to the period after 1950. Still, one comes away from "The Howard Theatre" with a better appreciation of the history of black culture in Washington, and a terrible sadness that there can probably be no new chapters in this particular history.
Jefferson at one point describes a magical scene in a Duke Ellington show and then laments that "they don't get these things anymore!" She's right, but for one night at least, the Howard Theatre's past is alive.