After five turbulent years, the nonprofit steward of the Howard Theatre is preparing to cut ties with the venue’s operator as the theater struggles to pay down more than a half-million dollars in tax debts and make its rent payments.
Myla Moss, chairwoman of Howard Theatre Restoration, said that she has hired lawyers to terminate the 20-year contract with Howard Theatre Entertainment, which runs the venue. The move could potentially shutter the theater, financed in part with a $12 million contribution from the District government, at least temporarily, while a new operator is sought.
“We are looking to formally move forward to sever our relationship with the current operator,” Moss told The Washington Post, adding that she has not received rent payments for several months. “We tried to work with this operator for five years now. We have given them ample opportunity to retool their strategy to make it a successful venue, and we have not seen a positive result. We can’t possibly sustain this current formula for 20 or more years.”
Moss added that she plans to keep the theater running. “It is our hope that we are not dark at all,” she said.
The Howard Theatre, at 620 T St. NW, was once a fenced-up eyesore, deteriorating in the years after the 1968 riots, despite a historic landmark designation and a gilded past hosting the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and James Brown. It reopened five years ago with a gorgeous new look and a schedule thick with big names.
Blue Note Entertainment, a New York outfit behind the Blue Note jazz clubs and B.B. King’s, formed a business partnership with local developer Roy “Chip” Ellis, called Howard Theatre Entertainment, to operate the venue.
In an emailed statement, Blue Note Entertainment President Steven Bensusan said he had no knowledge of Moss’s plan to terminate the contract. “We have committed millions of dollars to the Howard Theatre and we are not interested in leaving,” he said. “The Howard has been a catalyst for the redevelopment of Shaw and our plan is to be here for the remainder of the term of our lease.”
The venue’s website shows two dozen public events in May, including concerts by Marsha Ambrosius & Eric Benet, Chrisette Michele, Digable Planets, DMX and T.I.
Moss said she informed Ellis this week of her intent to sever ties. Ellis did not respond to requests for comment.
After its reopening, organizational problems and poor ticket sales quickly began to plague the Howard.
The venue fell behind on its tax bills, and this month the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue issued liens against the property, alleging $559,981 in missed payments to the District. According to city records, the Howard owes $299,836 in possessory interest taxes (similar to property taxes) and another $260,144 in personal property and sales taxes, including interest and penalties.
Issuing a lien is the tax office’s first step toward staking a claim to properties or businesses owned by delinquent taxpayers. Liens remain in place until the debt is paid off.
Joaquin McPeek, a spokesman for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), said that the mayor is “committed to ensuring that the Howard Theatre serves as a vibrant asset to the community” but that the matter was between Howard Theatre Restoration and the operator.
In recent weeks, former employees have told The Post that paychecks were frequently delayed and that vendors have gone unpaid. Promoters who booked performers at the theater have said that checks issued by Howard Theatre Entertainment have bounced or that they received only partial payment. Bensusan disputed all these claims, saying they were “just not true.”
Howard Theatre Entertainment has “not adhered or been in compliance with contracts with not only the talent that is honored to perform but also with their own employees,” Moss said. “They have not adhered to the contract with us, their landlord.”
Bensusan said that the Howard is on its way to a new business model. “We have been doing very well with corporate, private and social events,” he said. “We feel that if we concentrate on events and produce less shows overall, we will be more successful.”