A few years ago, saxophonist Gil Melle was asked why jazz is loved more in Europe than in America, where the music was created. He responded with a metaphor: If your front yard was strewn with diamonds from the time you were born, you'd never notice them. You'd simply go about your daily routine while the ground glittered under your feet.
Melle's image comes to mind when one sees the decaying Howard Theatre at 620 T St. NW in Shaw. The Howard, vacant since 1984, was the first large black theater in the country when it opened on Aug. 22, 1910. For much of the early part of the century, it was America's most potent and resplendent repudiation of racism. In Europe, a government agency would have restored this landmark home of jazz and jazz musicians--including Duke Ellington, whose 100th birthday is being celebrated this week--and would brandish it as a national treasure. It's a disgrace that Washington, a city renowned for its monuments and museums, has let this diamond lose its glitter.
"It's difficult to overestimate the importance of the Howard," says historian Henry Whitehead, the president of the Howard Theatre Foundation, a nonprofit group that has struggled to ensure the Howard's preservation. The Howard was built by black furniture store owner Benjamin Benedict--who realized that a black theater was a sure moneymaker in a city that had none. At the time, blacks were barred from Washington's segregated downtown theaters and put on shows in tents on the spot where the Howard now stands. When the 1,500-seat theater went up, it was a powerful symbol of black equality. "This was a great matter of community pride," says Whitehead. "This is how we proved we were on par with everyone else."
On par? If anything, many of the performers--both black and white--were superior. On opening night, the black newspaper the Washington Bee reported, "The Washington Society was out in full force. . . . the private boxes were filled with many ladies of society." In attendance at the baroque palace--complete with crystal chandeliers, marble staircases and eight proscenium boxes--were Assistant U.S. Attorney J.A. Cobb and the former governor of Louisiana. They enjoyed European acrobats, German comedians, a minstrel group, and singer and actress Abbie Mitchell, whom the Bee reported "carried the house by storm."
After World War I a new movement arose among African Americans. Known as the Harlem Renaissance because of the black intellectual and artistic firepower that settled in that New York neighborhood, its aim was to achieve equality through artistic achievement. Harlem Renaissance writer (and former NAACP leader) James Weldon Johnson proclaimed in 1921 that "the status of the Negro in the United States is more a question of national mental attitude toward the race than of actual conditions. And nothing will do more to change that mental attitude and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art."
The Harlem Renaissance owed much to the Shaw neighborhood. Home to the black Theater Owners Booking Association and the Colored Actors Union, Shaw was known as the "black Broadway." With its tony theaters, dance halls and more than 300 black-owned businesses, Shaw's artistic energy predated and helped spawn the Harlem Renaissance. Harlem Renaissance literary figure Jean Toomer started as an assistant manager at the Howard; Booker T. Washington gave a lecture there in 1912. A 1916 Howard production called "Darktown Follies" eventually made its way to Harlem, where it became a smash.
After a slow period following the 1929 stock market crash (so slow, in fact, that for a couple years the Howard was used as a revival temple), the theater was purchased in 1931 by Sam Steifel, a wealthy Philadelphia businessman. Steifel hired the brilliant promoter Shep Allen as the new manager. Allen's first order of business was to get a big name on the bill.
His first choice was Ellington, who, of course, had grown up in Washington. It could even be said that Ellington had been raised at the Howard. Ellington was born on April 29, 1899, and the upcoming centennial is the occasion for a massive multimedia birthday celebration including a PBS special and CD reissues. What many people don't know is that Ellington's favorite place to hang out was Frank Holliday's pool room next to the Howard. Entertainers would drop by Holliday's after their gigs. Ellington learned his way around a piano from talents such as Lester Dishman, Phil Wird and Carolynne Thornton. Ellington met his first drummer, Sonny Greer, through a mutual friend who played the theater.
Ellington left Washington in 1923 to gain fame in New York, but his absence hardly affected the Howard. It retained its status as, in Whitehead's phrase, "the most precious black theater in the country, the granddaddy of them all." Even Harlem's famed Apollo, which was a whites-only theater under a different name until the mid-'30s, couldn't come close. President and Eleanor Roosevelt were entertained at the Howard at "presidential birthday balls" during World War II. Years before the civil rights movement, the Howard was, as Whitehead put it, "creating a civil rights victory on a social front."
Through the '60s--with only a short closing during the Depression--the Howard would offer a stunning list of talent: Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, the Supremes, Washingtonian Billy Eckstine and Charlie Parker (who refused to do an encore after a 10-minute ovation because he was sore at having to open for a local rhythm and blues band, the Clovers.) Sidney Poitier starred in an all-black version of "Detective Story" there in the 1950s. It would be easier to name the great black artists who didn't play the theater--there aren't many.
Today, the Howard is silent, a victim of economics, history and social upheaval. The civil rights laws of the '60s allowed blacks to go to theaters downtown and live in the suburbs, starting a trickle out of the city. The trickle became a deluge when Shaw was rocked by the riots following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Almost overnight, the area around the Howard, once the epicenter of the black glitterati, went downhill. The theater closed its doors in 1970.
Whitehead and others fought to reverse the decline. In the early 1970s, Whitehead established the Howard Theatre Foundation, consisting of, as one of its position papers put it, "middle-class people, upwardly mobile and in the government [who were] concerned about the continuing disintegration of what had once been the proud center of a prosperous local economy." The group's goal was twofold: to preserve the theater as a historic landmark and to keep it active to boost the local economy. In 1973, the foundation succeeded in getting the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1974 the Howard Theatre Corp., a group of private investors not affiliated with Whitehead's group, got a $325,000 loan from the federal Small Business Administration to renovate the theater. In April 1975, the group produced its first show--"The Howard: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow"--starring Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley.
The reopening was a success--for a week. The Foxx show drew limos and long lines, but times had changed. In the 1940s, a top act could be staged for a few thousand dollars. In the rock era, performers were asking for five figures. Entertainers--both black and white--also had the option of playing at any other theater in town. A month after the Foxx show, the theater went dark again.
In 1977, Whitehead's group assumed the SBA loan and ownership of the theater. With the aid of a grant from the federal Comprehensive Employment Training Administration (CETA), the foundation hired three groups of equity actors in 1978 to put on performances. There were also occasional shows by legends such as B.B. King and Ray Charles.
Then the 1980s arrived. The Reagan administration cut CETA and the Howard's acting companies couldn't survive. A heavy drug trade moved in. A 1981 Washington Post article called Seventh and T the city's "meanest corner." The D.C. government gave grants to experimental theaters like the Source on 14th Street and spent $8 million in the mid-'80s to renovate the nearby Lincoln Theatre on U Street--a decision Whitehead believes was made because of the Lincoln's proximity to then-Mayor Marion Barry's new Reeves Municipal Center.
The Lincoln, a rival to the Howard and a venue for many black entertainers over the years, had a storied history, too. Whitehead was thrilled that someone was willing to save it. But what about the Howard? It struggled along, barely breathing, rented out only for the occasional show. A Post reporter at the time described the scene at Seventh and T as "the gathering place of dejected men and women, worn thin by life." In 1986, the Howard was sold to the D.C. government, which made promises to renovate it and then quietly padlocked it.
Since then, says Whitehead, "not a thing" has been done. The foundation, which at its peak had 30 members, became inactive after the District bought the property. But its members stay in touch and think of themselves as "a silent watchdog."
In the meantime, there is plenty of money for other landmarks: Millions for the Washington Monument's face lift, to say nothing of the estimated $700 million for the new convention center going up near Mount Vernon Square, or the estimated $100 million needed to build and maintain the proposed World War II memorial.
Washingtonians know the importance of history and culture, and we work hard at preserving both. It would cost about $8 million to restore the Howard, or less than 15 percent of the $58 million in grants announced last week by the National Endowment for the Arts. If the D.C. government won't do anything, the federal government could make the theater part of the Smithsonian, using it for films, lectures, and exhibits about jazz and entertainment. Or they can let it die, and with it, a part of American history.
Mark Judge is the author of "The Home of Happy Feet: Swing, Suburbs, and the Rebirth of American Culture," to be published next year.
CAPTION: The theater as it stood in 1969, a year after neighborhood riots and just before it closed its doors in 1970. It reopened in subsequent years but has remained dark since 1986.
CAPTION: A young theatergoer is patted down by a security guard before a show in 1982. The theater's manager at the time said the routine was for kids' own safety.
CAPTION: Howard Theatre bills tell the stories of smartly staged plays and musicals, of opportunities for local talent and of the rise of jazz greats in America. The bills at top right date from 1911, when ticket prices were 25, 35, and 50 cents; the theater bill from the mid-'70s, shown directly above, featured actors popular for their roles on the TV sitcom "Sanford and Son." Ticket prices had climbed to $8 for weekend seats.