The night was electric. For the first time in decades, high-wattage celebrity lit up the theater at Seventh and T. Savion Glover tapped. Wanda Sykes snarked. Smokey Robinson unleashed his falsetto, still as tender and swoon-worthy as when he was 16 — his age the first time he played the Howard Theatre.
But the biggest star on that April evening in 2012 was the resurrected Howard itself, a monument to black cultural history that stood crumbling for decades as Washington slowly changed around it.
The theater’s reopening festivities unveiled a $29 million restoration — financed in part by a $12 million contribution from D.C. taxpayers — that many hoped would help cement the revival of Shaw and the east end of U Street. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, longtime D.C. residents were ushered past oversize, illuminated photos of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, past new black-walnut walls and dueling jumbo screens. Some seniors were so happy to see the hangout of their youth rejuvenated that they danced in the street.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) summed up the overflowing enthusiasm: “D.C. is back,” she proclaimed, “because the Howard is back!”
But did she speak too soon?
Four years later, the promise of those ecstatic opening days has faded amid charges of mismanagement and mounting financial problems, according to a number of people closely associated with the Howard who were interviewed for this article. Lackluster ticket sales have led to late rent and loan payments, and the venue owes the District hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes. A planned museum and education center have failed to materialize. The city attorney general’s office is looking into the theater’s financing, while complaints about its operations — from the food to the security to the dwindling number of big-name acts — have piled up.
Meanwhile, a slew of departures from the nonprofit board has left only one active member overseeing the Howard, and former members are raising concerns about the theater’s future.
The legendary Howard Theatre is in trouble once again.
Before its sweeping renovation, the Howard was a symbol of the District’s decline in the wake of the 1968 riots. Opened in 1910, the theater predated New York’s Apollo as a hub of African American culture in the era of segregation, packing in crowds who came to hear the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Marvin Gaye. But after the riots, the theater fizzled. A historic landmark designation in 1973 saved the Howard from the bulldozers, and for years afterward, various promoters would try and fail to tap into its legacy. One would reopen the venue only to shutter it again within weeks.
The Howard was on the verge of foreclosure when, in the mid-1980s, Mayor Marion Barry picked it up for a song — $100,000 — making the city the steward of a grand but rapidly deteriorating Beaux-Arts music hall.
It wasn’t until 2008 that District officials inked a deal on a 75-year lease that would put the Howard in the hands of local developer Roy “Chip” Ellis, who promised to revive the theater, laying plans for a cabaret-style entertainment venue, a destination for dinner and a show, with a museum of the theater’s history and an education center to be added later.
For months after the 2012 opening, the Howard seemed to be taking off. Chaka Khan performed, followed by then-newcomer Kendrick Lamar and singer Miguel. Gospel music rang out at brunch every Sunday. Even first lady Michelle Obama came to see Musiq Soulchild perform, stopping to add her autograph to a signature-covered wall in the basement.
The venue became a go-to spot for marking historic local events. It hosted the viewing for go-go legend Chuck Brown when he died in 2012 and the victory party for Muriel E. Bowser (D) when she was elected mayor two years later.
But behind the curtains, problems were quickly setting in. Ticket sales failed to live up to expectations. The theater began to fall behind on rent payments to Howard Theatre Restoration, the nonprofit organization set up by Ellis to oversee the renovation and repay the construction debt. The late payments put Howard Theatre Restoration in “a precarious position with our lenders,” said Myla Moss, the nonprofit’s chairwoman.
The rent, she said, was late as recently as January and February, which Ellis confirmed, although he said that it was by a matter of only a few days. Making the monthly payments, he said, has been dependent on “incoming money, and it’s hard. But we’ve paid it, and that’s the important thing.”
Ellis also defended his work to reopen the Howard. Critics, he said, either have an ax to grind or don’t realize how difficult it was to revive the theater.
“We were trying to actually convince people that this black theater mattered after 35 years,” he said.
Among the theater’s critics is Zemira Jones, the former treasurer of Howard Theatre Restoration. The fundamental problem, he said, was the business plan itself. The monthly debt payment to lenders is more than $60,000, said Jones, but the theater’s monthly rent was set at only $42,000. Moss and others formerly connected with the Howard confirmed these numbers and the shortfall.
Fundraising was expected to make up the difference. But raising enough money has proved to be easier said than done.
The whole operation, Jones told The Washington Post, “was set up to fail.”
Tapped to fill the Howard stage was Blue Note Entertainment Group, a prolific New York venue operator owned by the Bensusan family. Blue Note partnered with Ellis, who took a financial stake, to form a subsidiary called Howard Theatre Entertainment to run the music hall.
From the start, Howard Theatre Entertainment has struggled with the venue’s dinner-and-a-show model. The initial vision was to snare customers’ dollars several times over — at the valet stand and then with pricey fare and $12 cocktails, as well as through ticket sales. Yet customers quickly began complaining about the poor-quality but expensive food, which initially included an $18 burger and an appetizer-size bowl of mac and cheese laced with collard greens for $19.
Within a year, the Howard severed its relationship with New York celebrity consulting chef Marcus Samuelsson and changed the menu offerings, though not the prices. Customers continue to say they never received food they ordered and that they are unlikely to return.
And the theater’s gleaming banquet kitchen remains a sore point: Building the kitchen in the basement has proved to be a costly miscalculation, requiring servers to run up and down stairs or take an elevator three levels to deliver the food. The challenge, acknowledged Blue Note President Steven Bensusan, has become “how to keep food hot going all the way up to the balcony.”
Security has also been a concern at the Howard. Since 2012, D.C. alcoholic beverage regulators have investigated 14 cases involving the Howard, have held eight hearings to address security shortcomings and have issued three fines totaling $6,750. The slightly larger 9:30 Club, which is also in Shaw, was charged no fines in the same period.
A woman who attended a 2014 event at the Howard filed a complaint with D.C. police alleging that she’d been groped in a stairwell where security cameras were supposed to have been installed but hadn’t been.
At a subsequent D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board fact-finding hearing, one board member expressed concern about the theater’s reputation, given its legacy and the District’s sizable financial contribution. “We can’t have the Howard Theatre being an embarrassment or an endangerment to our community,” the member, James Short, told Ellis.
Ellis and Bensusan said that after the incidents, the venue installed the proper cameras and hired new security guards. But as recently as September, the Howard was before the board once again after a stabbing outside its premises. It still hadn’t finished installing all the cameras promised in its security plan. The board again pressed Ellis about the taxpayers’ investment.
“If you were a neighbor and you lived the next block over from Howard,” Short asked, according to a transcript of the meeting, “do you think your investment is being well made after the incident?”
“No,” Ellis responded. “No, I don’t think so.”
Bensusan said in an emailed statement that the Howard hired a new manager and security team last year and is “confident in their capability of protecting patrons and ensuring a safe environment for music lovers.”
Of all the hope surrounding the Howard, the greatest expectation was that it would once again be the busy music hall and cultural attraction of old. But several competing venues, including the Fillmore in Silver Spring and the Hamilton downtown, opened during the Howard’s construction. The theater’s star-powered bookings have faded markedly.
Rodney Ellis, Chip Ellis’s brother and a founding member of the theater restoration board, said that initially, Howard Theatre Entertainment “was struggling. Struggling to find the right audience, the right match between the entertainment they were bringing in, versus the attendance, versus the ability to really book people.”
Recent performances have included a movie parody called “Point Break Live,” storytelling events and B-list nostalgia acts such as singer Bobby Brown and comedian Paul Reiser, neither of whom would be considered top-draw talent. The gospel brunches, an early draw that also paid homage to the theater’s history as a gathering place for African Americans, have been pared back as well.
Meanwhile, artists have complained about the way the venue has treated them: In December, D.C. rapper Shy Glizzy griped on Twitter that the Howard had abruptly canceled his concert, even though it was expected to draw a large crowd. And a representative for another musical act said that the venue sold tickets for a concert listed on the wrong date; it took weeks, he said, to get the show listed correctly.
Chip Ellis and Blue Note dismiss suggestions that they’re not running the theater well.
“Nobody’s making any money,” Ellis said, but “we are trying to get this thing to a point where it will be a great success.”
Bensusan, the Blue Note president, acknowledged that “when we reopened, there were some struggles getting bodies in the room,” he said. “Most venues, when they open, they’re very hot in the beginning and you get to reality. . . . We’ve seen that at every venue we’ve ever opened.”
But he said that the venue had found its footing and is nearly always busy. “We did over 300 shows last year. We are open a lot,” he said. “There are many months where we’re booked every single night. Whether it’s a public performance or a private event, the room is active, the room is being used.”
But Moss, the Howard Theatre Restoration chairwoman who is now the volunteer board’s lone remaining member, said she isn’t convinced that the Howard has figured out how to compete with other venues.
“To be candid, really, they haven’t found their niche,” said Moss. “We have a Strathmore. Not that we’re in the same ranking, but we have a Kennedy Center. We have a jillion venues. And while this neighborhood really has rehabbed itself, it’s still a little squirrelly. So the Bethesda mom who wants to do a girls’ night out and see someone cool and be hip and hang out has a little reservation about coming here.”
And the menu, she said, still needs work: “The drinks are the worst in the city, to me.”
The music hall’s failure to live up to its early projections soon caused a ripple effect.
When the rent wasn’t paid, or was paid only in part, Howard Theatre Restoration fell behind on debt payments, said several of those interviewed.
Moss disputed the contention by Jones, the former treasurer, that the project was “set up to fail.” But she conceded that “it was set up on fragile ground. Everything had to work, every time.”
Former board members said that the problems started with the board. In the beginning, Chip and Rodney Ellis took two seats. Rodney’s son, Malik, who died in 2014, also attended board meetings.
“We had board meetings where we had six people there, and three of them were Ellises,” recalled Jim Graham, a former Howard board member and a D.C. Council member until 2015.
Responding to concerns that his presence on the board that was supposed to oversee his company’s restoration work looked like a conflict of interest, Chip Ellis resigned in 2009. Rodney Ellis stayed on for a time.
According to Graham, when the theater fell behind on its rent payments, “part of the edge was taken off” by the operator giving board members free tickets to shows. “It was a very chummy situation, and so I’ve often wondered whether [Howard Theatre Restoration] worked hard enough to collect the rent,” he said. He acknowledged that he also attended free shows at the venue.
Rodney Ellis confirmed that the close ties between Howard Theatre Entertainment and Howard Theatre Restoration created a problem. Blue Note “would say, ‘We’re late on rent, Chip, but you know these people on the board. Make them get off of us. Don’t give us a hard time about this,’ ” he said, adding that Chip Ellis “was caught in the middle, because his heart was with the not-for-profit he helped to start in the first place, but at the same time, he was trying to be a good partial owner and operator of the theater.”
In an emailed statement, Bensusan said that Chip Ellis never intervened between Blue Note and the HTR board and that if board members asked to attend shows at the Howard, Blue Note would set aside any available tickets for them.
Rodney Ellis also acknowledged that the venue’s financial structure left a gap between the rent and the amount due to lenders, but he said that the board was to make up the shortfall by drawing from a cash reserve of initially about $200,000, plus ongoing fundraising and a portion of ticket sales that would be set aside for the nonprofit.
Moss said that fundraising has been difficult because the nonprofit’s leadership has all but dissolved, while low attendance has affected revenue from ticket sales.
The lack of cash has also delayed the planned museum and education center, additions aimed at serving the community, which Moss estimated would cost another “10 to 20 million.”
Meanwhile, the Howard’s problems continue to stack up.
A spokesman for the office of D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine has issued a statement saying that the office’s “public integrity unit is reviewing materials related to the redevelopment.”
Moss said she has heard from creditors who have warned her about defaulting on the construction loans.
And the Howard has failed to keep up with its real-estate taxes and now owes the District more than $330,000, up from about $260,000 just a few months ago. Chip Ellis has begun seeking legislation in the D.C. Council to help the theater meet that obligation, arguing that the Howard is being unfairly burdened by an excessively high tax assessment.
Just four years ago, the Howard Theatre was the District’s comeback kid.
Today, some are pondering the possibility of failure, and beginning to imagine that the legendary African American venue could cease to exist.
The worst outcome, surmised Moss, would be “that someone else comes in and doesn’t keep it the Howard.
“That’s the worst-case scenario.”