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The Howard Theater

"The Howard Theater was where all the great acts came. It was like heaven for young people." -Charles Cassell

Deep in the heart of this nation's capital lies a historic neighborhood, Shaw/U Street, where culture and artistry were compounded. For many decades, the epi-center of this area was the Howard Theater. Created as one of the first legitimate African-American theaters, the Howard became the stage which launched many future legends. Located at 7th and T Streets, the Howard was the foundation of the vibrant U. Street District. One of the theater's most enduring qualities was its cultivating of a young art form known as jazz. As jazz expanded and new artists came to the forefront, the Howard Theater proved vital in showcasing the plethora of black talents. In a time when this nation was deeply divided by segregation, the Howard Theater provided for an arena where color barriers blurred, and people cohesively enjoyed the magical sounds of jazz.

W.H. Smith, the first manager of the Howard Theater boasted an impressive resume from managing other predominantly African American theaters. The auditorium had an impressive seating capacity of 1,200 persons. The Howard Theater opened its doors on August 22, 1910, displaying its Italian Renaissance facade and its Spanish-Baroque architecture. Opening as it did in 1910, the Howard's emergence, predated American involvement into World War I, the turning point for black assertiveness. The astounding success of the Howard resonated throughout the East Coast as it energized the debuts of other black owned theaters, such as the Apollo in Harlem, the Uptown in Philadelphia, and the Royal in Baltimore, or, the Chitlin' Circuit.

In the early years, the Howard Theater was known for its superb performances of vaudeville acts, plays, and circuses. Despite prospering through the booming Twenties, the Howard had to shut its doors in 1929, at the onset of the Great Depression. In 1931, Shep Allen became the new manager, and became devoted to hiring only the best in black talent, making a break from a wide variety of different types of performers. His extraordinary success at discovering new acts and attracting big names from all over the country, allowed him to coin the nickname, D.C.'s Dean of Show Biz. Though the Howard did not discover D.C.'s biggest pride and joy, Duke Ellington, it was responsible for lauching many careers such as Ella Fitzgerald's. As the Howard reopened many performers headlined its return. Most notably, Duke Ellington, who began his career in 1917, was on hand to welcome the Howard back. The Howard's ability to attract the love and respect of some of the biggest entertainers of the time proved everlasting.

The 1930's through the 1950's brought jazz to its most heightened plateau at the Howard. For only 40 cents, a person could enjoy a cartoon, a newsreel, a movie, and a live performance. Such stars as Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, Nat King Cole, "Moms" Mabley, and Duke Ellington often contributed. These such acts brought unparalleled fame and prestige to the Howard. Despite the segregation laws and racial hostilities many whites frequented the Howard as well. In fact approximately 25% of the audience was white. It was the magnitude of the stars that stole the show. Seeing such great acts was the most important thing, and consequently all extraneous problems and conflicts were forgotten in the pleasure of the moment.

The 1960's, brought such new flavors like Motown music and soul, but also brought desegregation to the Howard. When Washington D.C. was fully desegregated in the early 1960's, venues such as the Howard Theater lost their prior status. Virginia Ali, who is the co-owner of Ben's Chili Bowl (a local establishment on U Street), commented on this in saying, "This was like black Chinatown. This was a segregated city...but once we became integrated, the professionals and businesses moved out and it (integration) brought in a different kind of people." Integration served to hamper the Howard Theater in many ways. Most importantly, it lured the most famous black entertainment into larger venues, where profits dwarfed those at the Howard. Finding it difficult to compete, the Howard relied on discovering new talent. Although, success was achieved, and such stars as James Brown performed. The original flair and prestige of the Howard had been lost. Towards the end of the decade, a civil disturbances resulting from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., served to debilitate the area, to drive out many locals, and to eventually transform the once vibrant U. Street area into a community hampered by stereotypes.

Many attempts were made to revive the Howard from its close in 1970. One occurred in 1975, and attracted many stars and received astounding publicity, both from the audience and former performers. However, despite this success, the Howard failed to regain its former glory. Currently, the Howard remains closed and plans for renovations are in progress. The Howard Theater not only served as a staple landmark to a community but to Washington and the nation. It should be remembered for fostering such great musicians as Duke Ellington, as well as being a pioneer of the African-American theater movement. "For decades, the Howard was more than a theater; it was an institution, a place where black performers could get a foothold in the profession, where Washington's black community could listen to the sounds of their generations and where white audiences could learn the passion and power of the black musician."

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