Arts Desk

The Howard Theatre: Fully Loaded

Image courtesy Prince of Petworth

Even surrounded by fences and construction materials, The Howard Theatre has obviously gone from decaying eyesore to palatial jewel. It's a much-deserved second chance for a local landmark that was once the prestige venue for African-American artists and audiences. Construction is still underway on the building's interior, but we got a chance to tour the venue Tuesday evening. Unfortunately we can't show you what we saw—photographers aren't permitted until work is done—but we can give you our impressions.

Make no mistake: The place is opulent. Designed by D.C. firm Marshall Moya, the new Howard is less conventional theater, more lounge, with a modest stage (its original size) suited to small ensembles and stand-up acts. Capacity is 650 seated, 1100 standing. There are no rows of movie-house-style seats; the first level is flanked by two rows of elevated seating areas, but the front-of-stage area comes equipped with a hydraulic floor. Within 40 minutes, the floor can be fully converted from standing to seated. "The facility has a lot of flexibility now," says developer Roy "Chip" Ellis. "It's built for the 21st century."

The balcony above smacks of "VIP area," fitted with leather chairs and tables with a Brazilian-marble bar behind. (There is also a bar on the main floor.) Stage-side box seats have been removed entirely, soon to be replaced by 200-inch HD jumbo screens. Ellis says the monitors aren't for stage views—there isn't really a bad seat in the house. The TVs are for advertising. That could make some audience members cringe.

But while the transformation upstairs is dramatic, the downstairs got an even bigger makeover. The Howard Theatre, formerly basementless, now has a basement with a green room, dressing rooms, offices, bathrooms, a waiting area, and, crucially, a 2,400 square-foot, banquet-sized kitchen. This is key. Ellis was quick to point out that The Lincoln Theatre, to which the Howard is still compared, doesn't have anything like it. That hurts Lincoln's income, big time. The new Howard, by contrast, will feature full restaurant service, with Harlem restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson designing the menu.

Those evolutions aside, the renovated Howard is awash in its own legacy. Its new facade isn't new at all, but the original 1910 exterior, cleaned up and refitted with new ornamentation. The interior lobby and theater walls will be adorned with images and memorabilia from the venue's heyday. But its lineup is relatively contemporary, skewing toward R&B, jazz, and hip-hop, with a handful of legacy acts thrown in for good measure. Howard's booking and operations are handled solely—for the next 25 years, as per their contract—by Blue Note Entertainment, owners of the eponymous Manhattan jazz club and a clutch of other big venues in New York. (Though the city, which owns the Howard, retains 12 days a year for its own functions.)

So while questions still linger about the Howard's troubling similarities to the Lincoln Theatre—both are city-owned and have a long history of mismanagement and neglect—the Howard is already working with significant advantages. Its professional management and multipurpose facilities put it several tiers above Lincoln, a fairly one-dimensional, and—for now—city-operated venue. Oh, and the Brazilian marble doesn't hurt.

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  • StrangeFruit

    Ignorance prevails at this Paper! What's up with using the term "Fully Loaded" to describe the Howard Theater?

    the District government has spent millions on dog parks and it plans to spend a BILLION DOLLAR on a streetcar to nowhere, and not once has this paper stigmatized these projects with the term "fully loaded", which the CP has coined to represent government waste.

    First Chairman Brown, now the Howard Theater; who or what African American landmark will be next on the CP's list to vilify?

  • er

    strangefruit,
    you really want to side with kwame?
    and you consider our neighborhoods "nowhere"?

  • http://NotionsCapital.com Mike Licht

    1.Actually, the original developers of the Lincoln Theater went broke, so the new owner built a nightclub in the basement that held as many people as the room upstairs. That second stream of revenue helped the theater prosper for decades. Many of the famous artists said to have played at the Lincoln actually appeared at the basement club, the Lincoln Colonnade.

    See http://wp.me/p6sb6-k7

  • Ally Schweitzer

    @StrangeFruit, "fully loaded," as it's used here, is not whatsoever a reference to Kwame Brown. The blog post is positive. Read the lede.

    @Mike Licht, yes, the Lincoln Theatre's basement has a rich history---but the post doesn't say it doesn't have a basement. We say it doesn't have a banquet-sized kitchen.

  • StrangeFruit

    @ Ally Schweitzer,

    Fully Loaded is used in the headline, which gets the reader's attention. There's no guarantee the complete article will be read, but the headline will be, and not forgotten. The bottomline is, this paper has ONLY used the term "fully loaded" in a derogatory manner in reference to government spending.

    CPaper's readers associate "fully loaded" with extravagant, overspending of DC taxpayers' dollars by government officials.

  • Ally Schweitzer

    @StrangeFruit, you're right that some readers make that association. But if they're not looking at the lede---let alone the body---of a piece, they're not in a position to draw conclusions about its tenor, its supposed "ignorance," and especially not whether it "vilifies" its subject.

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  • Ponty

    @ strangefruit

    SWEEEEET meltdown bro!

  • DuckWash

    Interesting... is the author a looting that by both Theaters being owned by the city, means they are subject to mismanagement and failure verse being privately owned/operated?

    I look forward to the Grand Opening of the renewed Howard Theater. My parents only have positive memories of their youthful days at The Howard. They share how for $1.50, they saw the original Temptations, James Brown and the like in one show, how Amazing!

    So, I will continue the legacy and hopefully have amazing memories to share with my little ones and so forth.

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