The revitalized Howard Theatre marked its fifth anniversary this spring, but according to former employees, there was little reason to celebrate.
Since its reopening in 2012 after years of neglect and deterioration, the Howard, the employees claim, has largely operated in an atmosphere of managerial turmoil, financial uncertainty and perpetual corner-cutting that has come to a head in recent months.
Several former managers have spoken with The Washington Post, describing a chaotic environment in which staff members as well as musicians and promoters have at times received late compensation, paychecks have bounced and vendors have gone unpaid.
On May 30, Maryland-based vendor Belair Produce filed a civil suit in the District against Howard Theatre Entertainment, the venue’s operator, for breach of contract, claiming more than $16,000 in unpaid invoices.
Rob Yealu, the theater’s general manager until he resigned at the end of April, was hired late last year to assist in the effort to make the Howard a profitable venue. Yealu said he quickly encountered a litany of problems, beginning with nonpayment of musical acts and a growing stack of unpaid bills, which he said hampered efforts to turn the Howard’s fortunes around.
Howard Theatre Entertainment’s majority owner is New York-based Blue Note Entertainment Group, which has resisted an ongoing effort to remove it as the theater’s operator. Steven Bensusan, president of Blue Note, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the lawsuit and the employee allegations outlined in this article. He has previously said that reports of checks bouncing and vendors not being paid were “just not true.”
Yealu said that none of the employees hired during his tenure, including friends whom he recruited, remain at the Howard. “It’s because the checks bounced,” he said. “It’s because we didn’t pay vendors. It’s because we didn’t pay talent. It’s because it’s extremely stressful for them to come in.”
Yealu described his former staff as “students. They’re single moms. They’re single fathers. They’re just people. And they come to work and their expectation is that they should get paid.”
Rahman “Rock” Harper, a onetime reality TV contestant and peripatetic D.C. chef who worked at the Howard for about six months last year before resigning, recalled being asked to inform kitchen workers putting in 40 hours a week — earning only $300 or $400 a week after taxes, by his rough calculation — that they wouldn’t be paid on time. “In a city of billionaires?” he said ruefully. “I’m an emotional guy, and that rips me apart when I have to look my cook in the eye and say, ‘I’m sorry. We screwed your check up.’ ”
The $29 million music venue was reopened in 2012 after decades of stop-start efforts to find a business model for its revival — efforts that were hampered in part by the open-air drug market that besieged the Shaw neighborhood in the 1970s and ’80s.
But as the District’s fortunes improved in the 2000s, developer Chip Ellis and his Ellis Development Co. forged ahead, securing a 75-year lease in 2008 on the city-owned Howard. The restoration of the designated landmark was bankrolled in part with a $12 million contribution from D.C. taxpayers, and outfitted the Howard with glossy amenities, including a banquet-style kitchen, aimed at ensuring its success this time around.
But the five years since its much-heralded reopening have proved turbulent. In interviews last year, several insiders said that ticket sales had failed to live up to expectations, and that the venue struggled to execute its dinner-and-a-show model.
In April, Bensusan told The Post of the Howard’s plan to focus more on private events rather than concerts. That same month, however, Myla Moss, chairwoman of the nonprofit organization that serves as landlord and steward of the theater, told The Post that Howard Theatre Entertainment had not made rent payments since last fall and that she was taking steps to terminate a 20-year contract with the organization. Bensusan said last month that the company planned to stay for the full term of its lease.
As concerts continue to fill the venue’s calendar, it remains unclear why the Howard Theatre may have failed to make payroll and to pay vendors.
All the former employees interviewed said that they were never specifically told of money troubles at the theater. When they complained about problems to executives at Blue Note, they said, their emails and phone calls were rarely acknowledged.
Neither Belair Produce, the vendor suing the Howard, nor its attorney responded to requests for comment. But several former Howard employees confirmed that the failure to pay vendors at times left the venue with food and alcohol in short supply on busy show nights, when bar sales can contribute as much to revenue as ticket sales.
Harper recalled that he only realized there was an issue with a vendor when a major order did not arrive for the weekend ahead. “You call around and you realize they didn’t get a check,” he said. “We just wouldn’t get deliveries.”
Eric M. King, the Howard’s beverage director from October through the spring, said that he was recruited in part to help turn the venue around. He said he believed that he could accomplish this goal in six months. Instead, he said, he found himself navigating a minefield that included understaffed concerts and absentee management from Blue Note.
He complained, but soon “realized what I was saying and doing, as a professional, was being disregarded or deflected,” he said. In March, King sent Blue Note executives a harshly critical email about a bounced check to a vendor, as well as other issues. The next day, he received an email response from Blue Note firing him. King provided the emails to The Post.
Employees and promoters recalled instances when checks to performers were also delayed or bounced.
Collin R. Haynes’s company, DCLA Productions, booked R&B singer Keke Wyatt for a February show at the Howard, his company’s first booking at the venue. He provided The Post with emails from Blue Note employees indicating that DCLA Productions was due more than $15,000 after the concert and informing Haynes on Feb. 28 that the check had been issued. It never arrived.
Haynes said that when his company finally received checks from the Howard Theatre Entertainment account in early to mid-March and deposited them, they were returned for insufficient funds; he provided The Post with a copy of one returned check to verify the story. Ultimately, the Howard Theatre paid in full, but only after DCLA began a social-media campaign demanding payment from the venue, Haynes said.
Another booker has filed a claim against the Howard in D.C. small claims court. Sean Chapman said that he rented the venue for a December concert headlined by singer Faith Evans and has yet to receive the full proceeds from the show. Like Haynes, he described having to pursue payment from the theater.
“I had to run them down just to get what I got,” Chapman said.