Picture this:

The last credits of a major motion picture fade to black and a wide screen ascends as a heavy velvet curtain behind it is pulled open. Music swells, and to semirespectful titters, a dapper emcee introduces a singer, a nervous local teen-ager who belts out a standard.

In short order the headliner appears -- say it's Lena Horne -- and soon 1,300 people are on their feet in the balcony, the orchestra and the aisles, roaring their approval at the opening bars of "Stormy Weather."

That scene likely was played out 40 years ago at the Howard Theatre, the nation's oldest showcase for black entertainers at 620 T St. NW in Shaw, but since the last of some scattered go-go and rock-and-roll shows was staged there in the early 1980s, the theater has stood dormant.

"Everybody misses that. Everybody misses those shows," said Vondell, who prefers to use just his first name. In those days, recalled Vondell, the proprietor of the Leather Repair Shoe Shop in the 1800 block of Seventh Street NW, just around the corner from the now graffiti-adorned theater, "Man, this street was really flourishing."

The extravaganzas of yesteryear are destined to remain alive only in the memories of people like Mary Jefferson, a local jazz and blues singer who grew up near the theater and who had her debut there in 1952. But with the city's August 1986 purchase of the Howard, the theater is poised for a return to the performing arts, perhaps as early as 1990.

The theater has been since the early 1970s, and under city ownership remains, a white elephant beset by the conflicting interests of small-business owners, community activists, arts enthusiasts, the Metro and city government.

"People are calling me every day about what's going on in the Howard Theatre," said Jefferson, who will speak of the Howard to anyone who will listen, but "we're faced with a lot of bureaucracy, bureaucratic red tape."

Kwasi Holman, director of the D.C. Office of Business and Economic Development, the city agency charged with rehabilitating the Howard, said the city plans "to renovate the theater and return it to performing arts use," but there is no projected date for the accomplishment of that goal. Holman said the city wants to restore the theater to its original 1910 condition. He would not divulge the expected cost of the renovation, but in 1974, $160,000 was spent just to make the theater operable. By comparison, the Apollo Theater in New York City required more than $10 million for its complete restoration in 1985.

Ideally, he said, the Howard's renovation will coincide with the 1990 completion of the Metro Green Line's Shaw station at nearby Seventh and T streets NW, and will further spur an economic renaissance for the area. Shaw, like several other neighborhoods in the city, never quite recovered from the riots of 1968, suffered through a period as an illicit drug market earlier this decade, and still harbors a number of vagrants and drunks.

"We want to have a historically accurate renovation of the facility that makes it a first-class entertainment center and takes into account its history," Holman said.

The theater was built in 1910 and for more than 50 years was one of the principal stops on the "chitlin' circuit" (the group of music palaces that included Philadelphia's Uptown, Baltimore's Royal and Harlem's Apollo, which during segregation were the main theaters that catered to black audiences and headlined black entertainers), where names like Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway graced the bills.

For most of its history, the Howard Theatre attracted large numbers of patrons, who in turn supported a lively and lucrative number of restaurants and bars around the nearby intersection of Seventh and T streets NW.

During the theater's heyday, the area bustled with people shuttling between now defunct jazz clubs -- among them the Stage Door, Off Beat, Old Rose and A-Bar -- to the stray sounds of a 12-bar blues, a bouyant swing melody or a be-bop vamp.

But after witnessing the rise of Motown and Stax performers in the 1960s, the theater fell into disrepair in the 1970s and was subject to a series of openings and closings under a succession of owners before it closed, seemingly for good, in the early 1980s.

The Howard Theatre Foundation, now inactive, played a role in having the building declared a national historical landmark in 1974, acquired the property in 1977, and was successful in operating it in a "hand-to-mouth" fashion for a time, said the nonprofit group's president, Henry P. Whitehead.

"We thought the Howard Theatre would serve as a demonstration project to show what a community-based {initiative} could do once they rolled up their sleeves and got to work," and that the community's work would lead to business and government support for the project, Whitehead said. "Unfortunately, that didn't happen.

"In '72 and '74 no one ever dreamed that there would be this long a delay in the construction of the Metro. The foundation did a lot of good things," he said, but "what we could not do is change the whole neighborhood by ourselves. The failure has to do with the failure of the city {and the business community} . . . to reclaim the neighborhood in which the theater {is} located."

The city spent close to $280,000 to acquire the property's title from the Small Business Administration and foreclosed on the foundation last August, Holman said.

An advisory group to the Office of Business and Economic Development, representing a cross-section of community, business and arts interests, will try to avoid the noncooperation of the past. Members of the group, which originally was supposed to start work early this year, will be named in October, Holman said.

The advisory board will explore "options for ownership and management {of the theater} and how to use existing cultural resources, such as existing theater companies and artists, in conjunction with other entertainment that will make {the Howard Theatre} a profitable venture," Holman said.

When the theater is revived, he said, the establishment in Shaw of "more retail services that are directly related to the theater, such as restaurants" is expected. "We want to bring back the kind of night life that used to make the area such an exciting place to be."

An engineering study was completed in June, Holman said, and additional studies will provide grist for the advisory group and city planners. The results of an architectural and historical study are due in October, and a market feasibility study examining the theater's impact on the community will begin this month. He said emergency repairs to the theater will be made this fall.

Most people agree renovation of the theater will be beneficial to the Shaw neighborhood, but there is disagreement on the direction and scope of the renovation and concern about the timetable for completion.

"It's the oldest black theater in the country," said Bryan Goodwin, 29. Goodwin, owner of Earth Seeds, a vegetarian restaurant across a side street from the theater at 618 T St. NW, said that "a minimal amount of money could get it restored to the point where they could get community organizations to come in and really run it. It's funny the way they let this place run down."

Jefferson, who was the first person nominated for a spot on the economic development advisory board, agreed with Goodwin.

"With redevelopment coming in here, it's going to be a long time before it's brought up to any of its past grandeur," she said, but with a little impetus the Howard "could be a community project for the now moment."

With that in mind, Jefferson has conceived of a 12-hour, outdoor jazz festival she hopes to stage in October with local talent in front of the Howard, thereby drawing attention to the theater itself.

But Vondell, 51, said only big name acts will mark a return of "a little better class of people up in this area for entertainment.

"You have to get top-notch entertainment in there for the first eight or nine months. Somebody who's class," he said. "The long-term solution is you got to book a year. You book your shows a year in advance, the next year will take care of itself . . . . All the revenue will come back."

James Brunson, 34, a Fort Lincoln cable television installer who has visited his grandmother in the Shaw neighborhood since he was a child, also lamented the loss of healthy businesses.

"It used to be people would drive up Seventh Street, pull up {in front of Vondell's shop} and get a shoeshine," Brunson said. But with access to the street blocked by Metro construction, those days are gone. "I bet you none of these {store owners} will have a new car anytime soon."

And while noting that the subway construction had usurped a playground and basketball court previously used by area youths, Brunson acknowledged that ultimately the subway and a revived Howard Theatre bode well for Shaw.

The city has grant and loan programs available to businesses in the area affected by subway construction, and Holman said economic development office will "continue to look for additional ways to ameliorate the effects of the Metro construction." But, he said, business owners and residents have to understand that the kind of wholesale redevelopment in store for the theater and the surrounding area "takes some time."

Yet all aspects of the theater renovation and the area's development will mean nothing if the community is not wholeheartedly involved, Jefferson said. "Once you put your hands on something to build it, you're not anxious to have somebody tear it down."