The Howard Theater - under new management - is preparing to reopen this summer.
First opened in 1910, the historic black theater was purchased last month by a nonprofit foundation which hopes to stage a variety of dramatic and musical events and restore the theater as a center of black entertainment.
The theater's previous owners made a similar effort two years ago. A gala opening night production drew a standing-room only crowd but the theater closed soon afterwards when the owners said they had run out of money.
Connie L. Drumgold, executive director of the Howard Theater Foundation, said that the foundation signed an agreement March 10 with the Small Business Administration (SBA) to purchase the theater, and that the foundation has made a down payment of $12,000.
SBA District Director Leon Bechet confirmed that the foundation has purchased the theater for $120,000. A $108,000 mortgage is to be repaid over a 10-year period at 8 per cent interest. Bechet said the agreement calls for the payments to begin in September.
Members of the foundation say they have received support from the black community in Washington, including a grant from the United Black Fund.
In a telephone interview, Calvin Rolark, president of the United Black Fund, confirmed that the fund intends to make "a sizeable donation," to the foundation, but refused to disclose the amount.
Noting that the foundation will hold a press conference next week at the Howard, Rolark said, "We do plan to make a sizeable donation . . . I assume at that particular time, they would be desirous of revealing the amount . . ."
Rolark also said, "It is by virtue of this donation that has caused this institution to open. Had we not come through, they would not be able to open."
Drumgold said of the foundation's plans for the Howard that he "wants to attract a national ethnic constituency, so that blacks across the country can look at a landmark in the nation's capital that speaks specifically to them."
The foundation intends to begin the subscription sale of seats to the theatre, Drumgold said, "much like selling pews in a church." For amounts ranging from $50 to $500, individuals or social organizations can "donate" seats and have brass plaques attached to the seats as a "legacy."
After the press conference, Drumgold said, the theater, located at 620 T St. NW, will open for three days and feature a photographic history of the Howard.
"I'm going to make it go," Drumgold said. "I've been five years at this point. The time we have in the debt service (before mortgage payments begin) gives us time to get the full thrust of the community behind us. We've got until September, that's the whole summer festival season . . ."
Drumgold feels that the recent closing of the D.C. Black Repertory Company does not necessarily indicate that black Washingtonians will not support "non-commercial" entertainment.
"We're responsible for presenting the full spectrum of entertainment," he said. "We will have a legitimate theater season, and we will do jazz, rhythm and blues and rock."
"We want to have every variety of entertainment we can possibly stage," Drumgold said, "but we'll have to deal with the economics. Where reasonably possible, no seat in this house will cost over $5.50. If black people want to make it go, the foundation has given them the vehicle . . . if they don't, then our obligations to the SBA will dictate that we become more commercial."
Other members of the foundation said they thought that Washingtonians could support the Howard.
Henry P. Whitehead, president of the foundation said, "In a city like Washington, with the black population we have, there is no question that we should be able to support the theater."
Whitehead felt that recent interest in Shaw area real estate was a good sign.
"This is a neighborhood on the upgrade," he said. "The Harambee Hotel will be opening up soon. The Howard University Hospital is up the street, and there will be a subway station at 7th and S Streets. The housing and redevelopment agency is refurbishing houses on 8th Street. This area is coming back."
Despite their optimism, Drumgold admits, "We've got some real problems." The neighborhood in which the theater is located is flanked by poolhalls and seedy restaurants. The sidewalks in front of the theatre are, at times, crowded with loungers, winos and dope addicts. Drumgold said that while cleaning the alley behind the theater, he had found several hypodermics. Whitehead acknowledged the need for more police patrols in the neighborhood if the Howard is ever to attract patrons.
One of the foundation's first efforts to involve the community in the theater could be seen last week when a group of Shaw University students gathered to clean up the area.
Kenneth Desper, a 15-year old 8th grader, said, "I came because I wanted to help clean up the theater."
"I don't know much about the Howard Theater," said Darnell Lee, 13, who is in the 7th grade. "People have told me that in 1910 or 1912, it was the first thing that black people could come to. I used to come by everyday on the way to school, and I'd see the whole thing being junky. So when I heard about it, I decided to come by and help clean up."
The Howard Theater Foundation's interest in the theater dates to 1973, when the foundation succeeded in placing the theater on the National Register of Historic Places. In September of 1973, the foundation announced a campaign to raise money to renovate the Howard.
However, in 1974, the New Howard Theater Corporation, headed by Bernard Stiefel, whose family had owned the theater, received a renovation loan through the SBA. Stiefel announced his intention to bring commercial rock and jazz to the Howard stage.
Drumgold was quoted then as saying that the foundation's plans had been thwarted because "we didn't have any money."
In December of 1974, the New Howard Theater Corporation said that it would begin renovations, and that the theater would open in about four and a half months. Plans for the reopening were greeted warmly by Washingtonians, and D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy said, "We see the reopening of this landmark as part of the revitalization of the inner city."
The Howard reopened in April of 1975, five years after it had closed because of declining attendance caused by fear of crime in the neighborhood. But it closed again two weeks after its gala reopening, which had been attended by Fauntroy, many D.C. City Council members, and Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), a member of the Black Congressional Caucus. The opening featured such black entertainers as Redd Foxx, Melba Moore and Arthur Prysock, as well as veteran comedians Pigmeat Markham and Moms Mabley.
"We're closing because of the money," Stiefel said then. "We probably didn't have enough money to start, we needed more working capital."