April 9 marks the first anniversary of the Howard Theatre’s reopening after 32 years of dormancy and decay. Its reemergence kicked off with a performance by D.C. rapper Wale then several days later, it threw a lavish opening gala in tribute to Motown Records’ founder, Berry Gordy, and Atlantic Records’ founder, Ahmet Ertegun.
On that historic evening, celebrities ranging from Dionne Warwick and Smokey Robinson to Savion Glover and Lalah Hathaway sauntered across the Theatre’s red carpet to peek inside the luxurious state-of-the-art interior, designed by Marshall Moya, that included a hydraulic floor, a balcony filled with leather chairs and Brazilian-marbled tables, and two floors with fully equipped bars. With the refurbishing of its original Beaux Arts façade with Roman brick and white Corinthian columns, the Howard Theatre once again became the “crown jewel” of the city’s famed U Street district.
The first year for any venue is an uphill battle. And when you have the cultural weight of being the first African-American theater along with the delicate task of extending that legacy of showcasing black culture while catering to a more multicultural audience, the hill becomes steeper. Luckily the Howard Theatre benefited from its alliance with the New York-based Blue Note Entertainment Group, which handles much of the Theatre’s talent booking along with Jill Newman, and D.C.-based marketing director and talent buyer, Marc Powers.
During the first year with only a few dicey concerts (Blue Oyster Cult, anyone?), the Howard Theatre consistently brought top-notched acts from the R&B (Anthony Hamilton, Raheem DeVaughn, and Chrisette Michele), jazz (Dianne Reeves, Gregory Porter, Esperanza Spalding, and José James) and hip-hop (The Roots, Slick Rick, and Drake) worlds; it even showed its moxie at showcasing old-school veterans such as Chaka Khan, Aaron Neville, and Sheila E., as well as throwing some unexpected yet exhilarating curveballs with reggae-punk icons, Bad Brains and the rock group, Thrice.
Powers says that one of the Howard Theatre’s biggest challenges regarding talent is presenting veteran rock acts and cultivating that specific audience. “If we do a rock band that has a younger audience, it does well,” Powers insists. Of course, given the Howard Theatre’s legacy, some critics will ask why is it presenting acts like Blue Oyster Cult and Leon Russell in the first place. After all, don’t other venues such as Alexandria’s Birchmere and the Fillmore Silver Spring cater to that audience? “Yes, [the Howard Theatre] is a venue to showcase African American talent, but it was created within a timeframe of segregation,” Powers notes, “Since the segregation lines have changed and African Americans are able to perform across the city, there’s no reason why we can’t have this change be a two-way street, meaning that the Howard Theatre should be able to showcase acts that normally would not have performed here during the Jim Crow era”
Another significant change was the Theatre’s interior, particularly its switch from box theatre seats to cabaret, communal dining tables. House manger Trey Harris says that patrons had to get accustomed to the new seating arrangements, especially after they had bought a ticket with a specific seating number. New patrons, hoping to have romantic evening there, were suddenly shocked to find out that their sexy date will be in close quarters to up to five strangers seating directly across the dining table. “A lot of people didn’t know how to take that,” Harris says.
Also, trafficking the flow of the incoming guests was a major learning curve, particularly with its first-come/first serve policy. “We learned that we always need to have our doors opened on time, so that everyone doesn’t sit down all at the same time,” Powers says, noting that the Theatre opens two hours prior to each show. “That way we can serve people with speed and accuracy, and [food] tickets don’t start crashing into the kitchen at one time.”
Perhaps the biggest negative criticism was the food, particularly its waiter service and price- indeed, both Powers and and Harris said they received many negative comments from patrons about the food quality and high prices.
At first, the Theatre enlisted celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, who designed a ho-hum menu that included such District staples as fried chicken, crab cakes, and $29 shrimp-n-grits. Many found the food was remarkably bland, without a hint of seasoning. Meanwhile, the plating of the food was often slipshod. Also, the food oftentimes arrived lukewarm. Shrimp-n-grit in particular lacked heat; burgers were dry; chicken was tough.
The Theatre now has chef Brian Thornton, who specializes in American cuisine with more of a southern taste. “The food has more of a taste,” Harris says, “Brian puts everything that he has into that food. One of the biggest challenges was the fried chicken. People just don’t eat everybody’s chicken, especially if it doesn’t have enough flavor or doesn’t look right.”
Harris says that the food prices have dropped too, based upon the feedback from the guests. Also, the Theatre has made slight changes with its specialty drinks such as the Ella Fritz, and the Ellington. “We listen to the guests every single day. We didn’t look at them as complaints; we looked at them as suggestions. It has helped us,” he says.
“The first year was figuring out the guests and their expectations; that was our biggest challenge. The second year is just meeting those expectations,” Harris says. As the Howard Theatre gears up for its spring and summer season with what Powers promises to have an increase in jazz programming that include Chris Dave, Cassandra Wilson, and Gregory Porter; the Howard Theatre will possible make straight “A’s” for its next year.