An article on the Howard Theatre in the June 23 Show section incorrectly referred to the authors of musicals performed there during the late 1920s. Their correct names are Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle.
The Howard Theatre.
For six decades, 620 T St. NW was an address as well known to Washingtonians, black Washingtonians in particular, as 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
In August, the Howard celebrates its 75th anniversary, and those who love the theater have begun to dream again of its rebirth. The distance between its illustrious past and tenuous present is enormous, but some continue to believe that the first legitimate theater in America built for blacks has a future. Much of its past is brought to light in "The Howard Theatre: A Class Act," a revealing WETA (Channel 26) documentary that airs Wednesday night at 10.
The Howard is boarded up now, in a sad state of disrepair, used occasionally for go-go shows. Hardly anybody plays there now, but there was a time when everybody in black show business played there.
Along with New York's Apollo (which opened a few years later), the Howard provides an excellent vantage point from which to track the cultural evolution of black America. From European-style entertainments in the 1910s and vaudeville shows in the '20s, the Noble and Sisle musicals of the late '20s, the classy big bands of Ellington, Hampton, Basie, Lunceford and Calloway in the '30s, the bebop explosion in the '40s, to the rhythm and blues of the '50s and Stax/Motown soul in the '60s, what took place on the stage at the Howard had an immense impact on the cultural life of Washington.
In 1974, the Howard was designated a historic landmark, which is only part of the story. It was above all a grand social institution, a vibrant shrine to black musical and comedy talent, an oasis of black expression and a stepping stone to greatness for many black entertainers, including locals like Billy Eckstine, Pearl Bailey, Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots, and the Clovers. In its later years, it was a place where Washington whites first learned what rock 'n' roll ought to be.
"We always caught every new show that came to the Howard," Eckstine recalls of his days at Armstrong High. "Duke Ellington was the biggest inspiration that we had. He was the epitome of what we wanted to be. He gave us some dignity. When the Duke came, that was it. The Howard was our Broadway."
The Howard was a cohesive influence in Washington's black community, at once celebrating musical legacies and providing varied role models. "It introduced black people to culture," says jazz great Lionel Hampton. "That was the main road to culture because that was the place where the performers came in and gave their best and the audience looked for the best. They looked for us to come down and give them entertainment and values. The Howard Theatre and Howard University were furnishing education and culture together."
The great actor Charles Gilpin made his debut there in 1920. Fifteen years later, the Mills Brothers drew such a crowd that T Street was converted to one way (which it still is today). It was there that Charlie Parker dueled with the Clovers and a young Sidney Poitier starred in a black version of the Broadway hit, "Detective Story." A quarter-century ago, the Supremes would make their theatrical debut at the Howard. In fact, the roster of talent that passed through was all-inclusive. Being cold about it, to have not played there was to have not mattered.
But once an act topped a bill at the Howard, they could top it anywhere.
"It was the show theater in town," recalls Valerie Parks Brown, who covered the Howard in the '30s and '40s for the Flash, Washington's first black photo journal. "All of the best talent -- anybody who was black -- performed at the Howard Theatre and anybody who ever became well known in theater played the Howard."
The segregation that was the rule in Washington until the early '60s was a one-way street, of course, and the Howard was subtly destructive to bigotry and the conservatism of Washington's moral custodians. "White people would sit next to you in a minute to see all those great acts," singer Mary Jefferson recalls.
"The Howard was the only place blacks could go," adds Rick Henderson, who led the theater's house band for eight years. "White people could always come to the Howard Theatre." In the Circuit
The Howard was the oldest member of what came to be known in the '50s as the "chitlin' circuit," which included New York's Apollo, Baltimore's Royal, Philadelphia's Uptown and Chicago's Regal.
"Everybody used to come there, and there was so much creativity," says singer Jefferson, who grew up right behind the Howard. "The men had such dignity and the girls were so fine!"
Pearl Bailey, whose preacher father ran the House of Prayer at Sixth and M, kicked of her show business career as a Howard chorine in 1934; eight years later, she was the featured vocalist there with the Royal Sunset Orchestra. A decade's winter beyond that, she would come out between shows with hot coffee for freezing fans lined up around the block to see her.
"The Howard Theatre taught me more about black music than anything else, because that's where I heard all the great musicians," Ahmet Ertegun told WETA. Ertegun, son of the Turkish ambassador, had first been exposed to the Howard when his family came to Washington in the '30s. When he founded Atlantic Records in the late '40s, two Washington-based acts, the Clovers and early rhythm and blues queen Ruth Brown, were among his first successes.
Howard audiences were as tough as those at the Apollo. If they liked you, they'd let you know; if they didn't, they'd let you know that, too. Black audiences were seldom mere spectators; more often they would interact with those on stage -- clogging the aisles for the great dance bands; swooning to ballad singers Billy Eckstine and Billy Daniels; shouting responses to gospel giants like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Staple Singers; rocking to Joe Turner and Amos Wilburn and Fats Domino.
"When they clapped, they clapped like a rhythm machine," recalls Ertegun. "It came from the soul. It was just terrific and that really inspired the musicians to play better."
Fans would also sit enthralled at the tap dance magic of John Bubbles and Bill Robinson; roar approval at the earthy, often off-color humor of Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Slappy White and Pigmeat Markham, who brought their party records to life on the Howard stage. They'd appreciate the sartorial splendor of the Ellington Orchestra or Peg Leg Bates, who would change the color of his peg every time he changed his suit.
And they charted the changes from the primal '50s R & B of Sonny Till and the Orioles, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, the Olympics and the Coasters to the smooth Motown soul of the Temptations, the Four Tops and the Miracles. And there were hundreds of great black acts who never connected to white audiences (the Sweethearts of Rhythm, Spic and Span, Butterbeans and Susie . . . the list goes on).
The Howard went through two peak periods, from its opening in 1910 to 1925, and from its reopening in 1931 until the early '60s. There were many beginnings to the Howard's end -- the escalating cost of acts, diminished interest in live entertainment, a deteriorating neighborhood destroyed by the riots of 1968. But the Howard had already packed a century's worth of history into its first 60 years. Opening Acts
From its opening on Aug. 22, 1910, the Howard (named for its proximity to Howard University) was the most patronized, and the most popular, theater in Washington. The Washington Bee, the local black newspaper from 1898 to 1922, heralded it as "First Class in Every Appointment, The Theater for the People." Even the lot on which it was built had a theatrical history, having been used for tent shows, circuses, carnivals and religious revival meetings.
According to Howard Theatre Foundation president Henry P. Whitehead, "It was regarded as a small civil rights victory on the social front. Blacks were still trying to emulate whites on stage and wanted white people to recognize, as a matter of pride, that they now had a beautiful theater that was also a social center. They wouldn't let blacks come to their theaters, and now black people had a better one. It was something the whole community could be proud of. And, particularly in the big band era, the prices were lower and the entertainment better."
There was some competition in the early 1910s: the Lincoln and the Majestic -- better known before as Ford's Opera House but briefly a black theater. But the Howard was not just the place, it was really the only place for black Washingtonians. It had the biggest stage, dressing rooms that could accommodate 100 people, and (bounded by three streets and an alley) 13 separate exits that allowed the theater to be emptied in three minutes. Its 1,400 seats were split between the orchestra and balcony, and originally there were eight proscenium boxes as well.
Dr. Mercer Cook, son of famed composer and conductor Will Marion Cook, points out another major contribution made by the Howard when it became a frequent home for the Lafayette Players, a black theatrical organization based in New York that had started taking Broadway shows on the road.
Says Cook, now 82: "There were musicals, comedies and dramas, even some operas, right on down the line." His mother, Abbie Mitchell, had been a headliner at the Howard's opening night and performed with the Lafayette Players until 1921. She would later introduce "Summertime" in George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess."
A 1916 theatrical production originating at the Howard, "Darktown Follies," eventually wound up in Harlem, where its success kindled the nightly white migration for quality black entertainment. Jean Toomer, the author of "Cane" and a key figure in the Harlem renaissance, once worked as an assistant manager at the Howard. And Seventh Street also housed the black Theatre Owners Booking Association and the 1,000-member Colored Actors Union, two organizations that reflected the burgeoning entertainment industry surrounding the Howard.
By the late '20s, however, the theater was experiencing its first decline, and as the decade ended, it had been taken over as a revival temple by Elder Michaux. Modern Times
In 1931, the Howard was purchased by Philadelphia's Steifel family. They installed Shep Allen as the Howard's manager, a position he maintained until the theater closed in 1970. After reconverting it to its former glory, Allen shepherded the Howard through its fabled second coming.
In the '30s and '40s, it became the Met of jazz, and the man who set the tone for those decades was a local pianist and composer whose first job had been in the Howard's sign shop -- Duke Ellington. Ellington had gone on to New York and begun to establish himself as a key figure in American music, and the reopening of the Howard in 1931 was also his triumphant homecoming.
The classic big bands reigned for the next 15 years, and one of the most popular was Lionel Hampton's. Sometimes, the Howard would drop the movies that ran between shows to cram more shows in: The Hampton band was known to do as many as eight a day. "It was a mecca for black entertainment," Hampton recalls. "I remember when the crowds would be all the way around to the bakery on the next block trying to get in, on both sides of the avenue.
"I remember the first time we played 'Flying Home' and there was a part where the band had a big explosion and I used to have flash pots on the stage and at a certain time we'd jump and the whole stage would blow up. I remember the first time we did it, everybody ran out of the Howard thinking the theater had blown up. We got a big laugh out of that."
Also in the '30s, the Howard began its amateur nights (eventually copied by the Apollo), and several stars were indeed launched from there: Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots, pianist Billy Taylor, Eckstine.
Still, for many Washingtonians -- whites in particular -- the Howard was defined by its '50s and '60s reputation as the prime center for rhythm and blues and soul shows, introducing such names as Laverne Baker, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Bo Diddley. It was then that the variety show concept began to fall by the wayside, replaced by the revue.
"It became one singing act after another and consequently the older people who weren't attuned to rock 'n' roll didn't get to see the things that they enjoyed," says Rick Henderson, who led the Howard band from 1956 to 1964, the longest tenure in that job ("It got so I left my house, my car knew exactly where I was going").
The Howard band supported all the acts the theater hired, with Henderson writing his arrangements based on records that arrived in the mail a week before the acts. "We'd rehearse in the morning of opening day from 8 to 12 and hopefully be able to get it all in. We'd use the best local musicians but the first show started at 2 o'clock and, you know, most musicians have to work. We'd usually have four shows a day -- at 2, 5, 7:30 and 10, with a midnight show on Saturday."
Jazz had begun to disappear from the Howard, though occasionally there were encounters like the one guitarist Bill Harris recalls. Harris would eventually win international acclaim as a jazz guitarist, but in 1950 he was playing with local favorites the Clovers.
"The Clovers and Charlie Parker . . . that was a heck of a show," he says. "Charlie Parker did not relish the thought of the Clovers, a rhythm and blues group, being billed over him, but we were hot then. One of those shows, he came out and did a performance that really put us out because he was very hard to follow. He closed up with 'Ornithology,' walked off the stage, got about 10 minutes of applause and didn't come back. And we're sitting there waiting for those people to die down. It was a great experience.
"You could feel it changing because of the type of acts coming in," Harris adds. "The one-hit wonders were coming in and putting us out of business, because they could draw more people at the moment."
The Clovers were signed to Atlantic and the Howard connection was strong there, too. After his father's death during World War II, Ertegun remained in Washington, pursuing his addiction to jazz. It was this that led him to the Waxie Maxie store around the corner from the Howard.
The Quality Music Shop had been opened in 1938 by Max Silverman as an outlet for used records from his jukebox business, and since most of his business was in the black community, most of the music was by black musicians. Ertegun, Silverman recalls, "hung around the store at least 12 hours a day; we were open from 9 to 11. He wasn't interested at first in what came to be known as rhythm and blues but that was my main seller, so he developed an ear for that kind of music."
Ertegun and Silverman started a record label, though it never went further than a single recording session with a singer named Little Miss Cornshucks. But, Silverman recalls, "there was a neighborhood group that used to sweep my store for me because they wanted my help in getting a recording contract. Atlantic didn't want them, but they recorded two sides in 1951; then Atlantic wanted to junk it so they sent just 2,000 records to Washington." "Don't You Know I Love You," written, ironically enough, by Ertegun under the pseudonym Nugeter, sold 650,000 nationally and was the first of the Clovers' 11 national hits.
The Seventh Street record shop became the flagship of a chain that now includes 24 stores in the metropolitan area and Silverman would offer special deals tied to appearances at the Howard. "Every time a show would let out we had a line half a block long to buy their albums at half price, so it worked out pretty good," he recalls. "And all the artists appeared in my store," he adds, recalling the 3,000 pictures of Silverman and various musicians that once cluttered up the store.
Those pictures, along with the store, were burned during the 1968 riots.
"The Regal, the Uptown, the Royal, the Apollo and the Howard -- all five theaters were the same," recalls Patti La Belle. "You would buy the hot clothes from the pushers and I would be the first in line buying that hot drag. I'd be eating sardines and hot dogs because all my money would be spent on clothes. Then I would gamble backstage with Chuck Jackson and Tommy Evans of the Drifters or whoever was on the show and lose the rest of my money between shows. I loved sardines, and at 10 cents a can, honey, I ate good.
"I wish all those theaters would come back. If you could get over in those houses, if they accepted you, you could play anyplace. If they didn't like you, they would throw a shoe or an egg -- sardines, if you were lucky -- till you would get your ugly self off the stage. Thank God they never threw anything at me."
By the early '60s, the Howard found itself in trouble.
"The whole area declined to an unsafe position," says Rick Henderson. "People used to stand in lines, one for the intake and one for those that had tickets, and sometimes the line would be from T Street all the way down to Georgia Avenue to S Street on one side and on the other side, down Wilberten Street to S Street. And in line you'd have all people of all colors and there was no problem with safety."
But the changes that Shep Allen first noticed in the '50s in both the music and the clientele continued. "Things changed with rock 'n' roll," he once said. "The youngsters took over and there was a drastic change."
Costs for acts had jumped tremendously, as well, and the multistar revues were no longer economically feasible. For instance, James Brown and the fabulous Flames, always a popular attraction, were paid $7,200 a week in 1960 and $40,000 a week seven years later. In his last appearances, Brown simply rented the Howard for a flat rate and paid the employes.
"In the '50s we could do a whole show for $10,000; now one act wanted that," says Michael Graham, editor of the Washington Observer and a frequent Howard emcee between 1955 and 1968. "It was a first-class house and people expected first-class shows; when they couldn't provide them, that was it." Dreams of Revival
In its heyday, much of the Howard's crowds had been drawn from its immediate neighborhoods, but by the '60s, many families were moving out. Addicts and winos were becoming more visible and both blacks and whites were reluctant to turn out for the shows. Much of the surrounding neighborhood was torched after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, but the Howard itself was never touched by fire, only by time. When it closed in 1970, few were surprised.
In 1974, the Howard Theatre Corporation, a private group of investors, purchased the theater with the help of a Small Business Administration loan. After $160,000 in renovations, it was reopened in April 1975 with a gala program titled "The Howard Theatre: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow." Starring Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Melba Moore and others, it sought a joyous linkup with the past, but ended up running in the red. Two weeks later, out of funds, the theater closed again.
In 1977, Whitehead's Howard Theatre Foundation assumed the foreclosed SBA loan and continued the hope that a reopened Howard would also help revitalize the neighberhood. But the distance between dreams and bottom-line economics was at issue here, as well.
Still, says Whitehead, reopening the Howard "has been our objective since '75." There have been several theater companies (one professional, two amateur), training programs, "some rock 'n' roll, gospel shows, community programs. We were searching for a format that would pay but we didn't want it to be just one thing. For the last couple of years we've been doing the go-go shows just to pay the bills."
The Foundation estimates it would take $500,000 to fix up the Howard. Whitehead says that's a pittance compared to the $13 million that went into the refurbishing of the Apollo, or the $4 million used to repair leaks at the Kennedy Center, or the $18 million to rebuild Wolf Trap's Filene Center or even the $1.5 million to repair a single crack there.
And a proposed subway stop at Seventh and S streets that has not moved beyond the planning stage is held up as another rescuing agent. "People could walk around the corner without even having to cross the street," says Whitehead.
But probably no revival of the Howard can occur without a parallel revitalization of the theater's commercial and social environment. "It broke my heart to go in there and see how they've torn it up and messed it up inside," says Billy Eckstine.
"I think that era is passed, really. They'd have to do a lot of work down there to clean it up. Good people don't even want to come down there because of all them junkies laying around.
"I really believe it's the end of an era.