February 24, 2012


In April of this year, The Howard Theatre will enjoy a grand re-opening, following a $29 million, 18-month restoration project, with the likes of Bill Cosby, Aretha Franklin and Wanda Sykes performing at the gala.  This is one of a few ‘re-births’ spanning a century, but it will certainly be the grandest for this 12,000 square foot facility.

When the Howard Theatre opened in 1910, it was known as "the largest colored theater in the world."  It pre-dated the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem by four years. It was situated in a predominantly African-American neighborhood near Historically Black College, Howard University, which is how it got its name. The theater was founded and owned by the National Amusement Company – a white-owned group -- and when originally built, it had a capacity for more than 1,200 people. The interior featured orchestra and balcony seats, as well as opulently-decorated proscenium boxes. The exterior was equally lavish, with combined elements of Beaux Arts, Italian Renaissance and neoclassical styles and a huge statue of Apollo playing his lyre, topping the building.

The Howard was also described as "the theater for the people" by The Washington Bee newspaper because it was a place where both Black and White patrons could gather together to watch the performing arts – despite the segregation that surrounded their otherwise, separate lives.

During the mid-1920s, The Howard was sold to Abe Lichtman, a white theater owner of cinemas that catered to the African-American community, since most cinemas were either completely segregated, or had a small ‘Colored Section’ in the balcony.

In its early years, the Howard Theatre featured not only Vaudeville, but also speakers, such as Booker T. Washington, live theater, musicals, and local talent shows. The theater was also home to two theatrical companies, the Lafayette Players and the Howard University Players.

Howard University Players

In 1929, after the Stock Market Crash, the Howard Theatre became a church for a couple years, before Shep Allen, a theater manager from Atlantic City reopened it in 1931 as a movie house and live entertainment venue, bringing in the newest and biggest names of the era in Black entertainment, including Duke Ellington – a native Washingtonian, who played on The Howard’s grand reopening night, helping also to cement the theater's reputation as an entertainment hotspot.

Duke Ellington and His Band at The Howard

1930s Howard Theatre

Mr. Allen also introduced the popular amateur night contests at The Howard, at which both Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine were springboarded to stardom.

Billie Holiday at The Howard
Billy Eckstine

Dignitaries, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, also enjoyed the entertainment and attended balls, during World War II, featuring a more diverse set of performers such as Danny Kaye, Abbott and Costello and Cesar Romero, as well as the African-American headliners.

Eleanor Roosevelt at The Howard

In 1941, the Howard Theatre underwent a massive remodeling, in Streamline style, complete with a new, sleek, facade and signage. That same decade, the legendary singer, actress and dancer, Pearl Bailey, made appearances on The Howard’s stage. Other legendary performers, such as Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, Sammy Davis, Jr., Lena Horne and Lionel Hampton played the stage during the 1940s and into the 1950s.

Pearl Bailey at The Howard

During the 1950s, the Howard Theatre became a venue for rock and blues artists, and the audience switched from sophisticated, upper-and-middle class patrons to young adults and teenagers. Among the acts to grace the stage, during that time, were Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, Sarah Vaughn, Miles Davis, James Moody, Dinah Washington, Sammy Davis, Jr., James Brown and the Flames, Otis Redding, Lena HorneLionel Hampton, Marvin Gaye and The Supremes.

James Brown at The Howard

The 1968 riots, which followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., caused the venue a great deal of harm; these, coupled with desegregation, forced the theater’s closure in 1970, after several years of attendance decline.

The surrounding neighborhood also became quite undesirable. However, three years later, the Howard Theatre Foundation was formed, and funds were raised to refurbish the badly aging theater.   In 1974, The Howard Theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places; and a year later, it reopened, featuring acts such as Red Foxx, Moms Mabley and Melba Moore.

However, sadly, despite the previous years’ efforts, the theater closed again just weeks later, and was only used sporadically during the 1970s and early 1980s as a venue for live entertainment such as go-go bands, including Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers.

Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers

In 1980, the theater closed again; and at that time, it was the oldest venue in the country that featured black artists. The DC Preservation League listed The Howard as one of its Most Endangered Places in the city in 2002. For almost three decades, it sat dark, empty and crumbling.

However, in September 2010, African-American developer, Chip Ellis, who had formed Howard Theatre Restoration, Inc., broke ground to restore the Howard Theatre to its former glory. The revamped Howard will have state-of-the-art acoustics, video and recording studios, along with a deeper stage, basement and additional wing space. Its cultural status will increase as well with a new addition housing a 600-square-foot museum, and Education Center with classrooms, a donor lounge, and a gift shop that will showcase memorabilia, photos and videos of the astounding array of artists and guests who graced the Howard Theatre in years past. Another new feature will be a Sunday ‘Gospel’ Brunch.

Restoration Interior

Restoration Exterior

The surrounding Shaw neighbourhood has also been being regenerated to ensure that the area becomes a mecca for entertainment and living.

When the curtains went up in 1910, at The Howard Theatre, the venue inspired creativity, as well as change. Although, they have fallen a few times, now that they will be majestically raised once more, The Howard is sure to inspire generations of all races, for decades to come.

Artist's Rendition

For more information:

The 2010 documentary Howard Theatre: A Century in Song aired on WDCW-TV and produced by Jim Byrne and Fran Murphy won a "Salute to Excellence" award from the National Association of Black Journalists in August 2011. In addition, the television documentary was nominated for a regional Emmy Award. The documentary features reporter, Robin Hamilton, interviewing performers, historians and Washingtonians, as well as archival photos and video clips. It is 20-minutes long; but click here, if you would like to watch it.  

To see a short slide show of the groundbreaking ceremony in September 2010, click here 

To learn more about the overall restoration, visit: http://www.howardtheatre.org/home.html

Pearl Bailey with Perry Como

Award-winning, singer actress, dancer and composer, Pearl Bailey, performed at The Howard in the 1940s, having begun her career, as a teenager, performing Vaudeville in Washington DC. She later starred in films, with the likes of Nat King Cole; and on Broadway, with the likes of Cab Calloway; and also appeared on television, including her own show, The Pearl Bailey Show, which debuted in 1971. Some of the guests on her show included Louis Armstrong, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Liza Minnelli, B.B. King and Cab Calloway. Pearl also recorded many popular singles, and her recording of "Takes Two to Tango" hit the Top Ten charts in 1952.

Pearl was also a phenomenal cook, although she was quoted as saying of herself, “I am not a gourmet chick.” She was a celebrity endorser of Duncan Hines cake mixes and Paramount Chickens.

Paramount Chicken Ad

In 1973, she published her autobiography-cookbook, Pearl's Kitchen, an Extraordinary Cookbook by Pearl Bailey, reflecting her simple, thrifty, down-home-cooking style of cooking, from ‘Pearlie Mae’.

Try this simple, yet delicious Apple Cider Roast Chicken. Enjoy!

Apple Cider Roast Chicken
Serves 4-6

  • 3 ½ - 4 lb whole roasting chicken
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • A few springs of tarragon
  • 3 apples cored and sliced
  • 1 ½ - 2 cups of Apple Cider (or Apple Juice)
  • Cooked plain white or wild rice

Preheat oven to 300 Degrees F
Place chicken inside a roasting pan
Salt and Pepper the chicken
Sprinkle tarragon on top of the chicken and place some inside the chicken
Place the sliced apples inside the chicken and around the outside, in the roasting pan
Pour some of cider/juice over the chicken, but save some for basting!
Place chicken in a hot oven
Baste with more cider/juice every 15-20 minutes
Use a meat thermometer to check when the chicken is done
Use the basted juice and apples as a gravy
Serve immediately with rice.

Sources: Wikipedia, Howard Theatre Restoration, Black America Web, D.C. Preservation League, Cinema Treasures, Google, Bing, YouTube, The Frugal Café, Months of Edible Celebrations


  1. Hi Zena,

    I'm in the process of updating the post I did for Pearl Bailey's birthday a while back and am delighted to happen up your post.

    She sure was one amazing woman! What an amazing timeline of The Howard Theater you have amassed here. Thank you so much. I had no idea:)

    Thank you also for sharing the image of Pearl and the Chicken. The Paramount Chicken book is quite unusual. I do appreciate the "folksy" style.

    Thank you once again for sharing but most of all, thank you for the reference to my blog too. I'm going to see if I can include a link to your blog in my update. Louise

  2. Whoops,
    Forgot to leave you the link to the post. I am in the process of updating this evening. Louise