Near the corner of Seventh and T streets in DC’s Shaw neighborhood was once an incubator of great music. Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, the Supremes, and Marvin Gaye all played the Howard Theatre early in their careers. Built in 1910, the Howard was known as the “theater for the people,” highlighting emerging stars of vaudeville and jazz, then big band, rock, Motown, and comedy. But in 1980 the stage went dark.
On April 9, the Howard reopens after a $29-million restoration that has turned the landmark into a state-of-the-art venue and revived its architectural glory. Taking the stage this month are Yasiin Bey, formerly Mos Def (April 14), comedian Wanda Sykes (April 13 through 15), the Roots (April 15 and 16), Chuck Brown (April 21), Taj Mahal (April 22), and Meshell Ndegeocello (April 25). Tickets ($27 and up) through ticketmaster.com.
April 12, the venue hosts a grand-opening fundraising gala honoring Motown founder Berry Gordy, with names including Smokey Robinson, Al Jarreau, Madeleine Peyroux, and Savion Glover (no individual tickets; tables start at $10,000; 202-588-5595).
The 650-seat space (elevated hydraulic platforms can convert it into room for 1,100 standing) boasts a menu overseen by New York-based chef Marcus Samuelsson. A supper club will open two hours before showtimes to give patrons a chance to dine; a menu will also be available during shows, and Sundays will boast a brunch with the Harlem Gospel Choir. The venue is operated by Blue Note Entertainment Group, whose properties include the Blue Note Jazz Club and the Highline Ballroom in New York City.
The Howard's second act began in 2000 when it was designated an American Treasure under President Clinton; the nonprofit Howard Theatre Restoration was formed in 2006. "All the greats have come through that room over the years," says Blue Note Entertainment Group's Steve Bensusan. "It was also the center of a vibrant community. Bringing back the Howard, we hope, will bring back the area as well."
This article appears in the April 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.