Passing from the red carpet through the front entrance of the Howard Theatre, its original 1910 facade restored and renewed by a $29 million, Dionne Warwick was visibly moved by the historic occasion, saying, “It is unbelievable. I think it’s wonderful that people thought enough to preserve it and bring it back to a state where we can all return and be here again. I just wish it hadn’t taken so long.” Warwick would later introduce a musical tribute to past Howard Theatre regulars Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday. “Fifty years ago I first walked out on this stage,” Warwick said. “I worked seven-days-a-week, four to five shows a day, and I made $3.12 a week.”
It was a night to celebrate the restoration of a one-time landmark that hopes again to attain iconic status for the District and the music world. “Listen closely, because the authentic Howard [Theatre] is back,” said DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton as she helped kick start the festivities at last night’s Howard Theatre Gala reopening celebration, which also served as a fundraiser for the yet-to-come Phase II of the project–an educational and cultural center. Norton’s sentiments echoed those of several of last night’s attendees, who ranged from entertainers Martha Reeves, Joe Sample, Dick Gregory, Savion Glover, Leslie Uggams, Raheem DeVaughn, Al Jarreau, James Ingram, Keb’ Mo’, and Dianne Reeves, to local politicos Jim Graham, Kwame Brown, Mayor Vincent Gray, notables Al Sharpton, George Stevens, Jr., Cathy Hughes, Donnie Simpson, Chip Ellis (of Ellis Development Group, which spearheaded the restoration efforts,) Peggy Cooper-Cafritz, Rock Newman and Ambassador of Turkey Namik Tan, as well as legends Bill Cosby, Berry Gordy (who was honored), Smokey Robinson and Warwick.
Leslie Uggams told a similar tale to Warwick’s, recalling how she started at The Howard (which was how many of the guests familiarly referred to the theater) when she was just ten-years-old, opening for Ella Fitzgerald. “I sang, I danced, I did impressions.” Uggams added Fitzgerald used to think she was too skinny and would worry for her and watch her as she played hopscotch in the alley outside the stage door between shows. “She would buy me an ice cream when the ice cream man came by.”
“We were here because America said we couldn’t work in other places,” said comedian Dick Gregory, referring to the fact that The Howard, which had been vacant for 30 years up until the recent renovation, allowed African Americans the opportunity to perform in a theater that had no segregation rules, one that welcomed them and served as a home away from home. “It’s a very emotional night, being here and reliving the stories and that time in our history,” said Edward Ellington, Jr., the son of Howard headliner and legend, Duke Ellington. “It was the largest and most important theater for African Americans.” (Ellington and his sister, April, were just two of the several family members of other Howard Theatre alumni; Viola Gaye, sister of the late Marvin Gaye was in attendance, as was Rhonda Ross, the daughter of Diana Ross and Berry Gordy.)
Wanda Sykes nodded to the past during her set–retelling old jokes from “Moms” Mabley, one of comedy’s first female stand-up comedians and a regular at The Howard. “She was huge to me, very influential,” said Sykes, before launching into Mabley’s material, which had the capacity crowd, primarily made up by deep-pocketed benefactors and community leaders, in hysterics. Sykes also took a few moments during her act to comment on the Trayvon Martin case, saying, “I’m so, so thrilled that they finally made an arrest in the Trayvon Martin case, right?” Pausing to add: “So thankful for that, because we’d all be looking real stupid in black tie and hoodies right now.”
The evening included a three-course seated dinner; the menu at The Howard was crafted under the guidance of celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, who last night said his modern take on comfort food was inspired by the history of the venue. Guests ate and toasted with champagne, at times moving to the music while still in their chairs. One notable seat-dancer was TV pundit Roland Martin, who sat, grooved, and tweeted most of the night from his front-and-center vantage point. Martin took a few jabs from Sykes, who poked fun at him from the stage over his recent run-in with the gay community due to some homophobic tweets. Sykes, a lesbian, joked, “You shoulda’ called me! I know people!”
But by the time dinner plates were cleared and LCB (Glenn Leonard of The Temptations, Joe Coleman of The Platters and Joe Blunt of The Drifters) took the stage for a Motown medley, most of the crowd were on their feet, dancing and rollicking in their black-tie best. We even caught Mayor Gray singing along to “Baby Love.” It was that kind of night.