Washington's famed Howard Theater back from the brink

Mon Apr 9, 2012 5:34pm EDT
 
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By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Washington's historic Howard Theater, a launching pad for black performers from Duke Ellington to The Supremes, reopened on Monday after a $29 million restoration saved it from the wrecking ball.

Hundreds of people crowded outside the Howard to celebrate the rebirth of the century-old building, famed as the oldest legitimate theater aimed at a black audience.

Speakers, including Mayor Vincent Gray, said the return of the theater with a Beaux Arts, neoclassical and Renaissance facade was a symbol of Washington's own renewal after decades of decline.

"The Howard Theater is back, ladies and gentlemen. It's a Howard Theater of the 21st century," Gray told onlookers before a ribbon-cutting ceremony done to Washington native Duke Ellington's signature "Take The 'A' Train."

Opened in 1910, the Howard and thrived through the 1960s as the heart of a vibrant "Black Broadway" in the then-racially segregated capital's Shaw neighborhood.

Howard, which preceded New York's famed Apollo Theater by more than 20 years, showcased top black performers, including Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, James Brown, Miles Davis and Washington native Marvin Gaye.

The Supremes made their first stage appearance there in 1962 and Ella Fitzgerald won an amateur night contest. Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, got his musical start by listening to jazz at the Howard.

James Walker, a 71-year-old retired federal worker, said he had seen many shows during the theater's heyday, including James Brown, the Four Tops and the Supremes.   Continued...

 
Workers install a statue of jazz great Duke Ellington on a pedestal in a newly-constructed plaza near the historic Howard Theater in Washington, March 29, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst