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Historic black theatre rises from the ashes

Concert hall that launched the careers of many greats of black Americanmusic − from Ella Fitzgerald to the Supremes – reopens after 32 years

  • The Howard Theatre lit up during the gala opening in Washington, DC.

    The Howard Theatre lit up during the gala opening in Washington, DC.

  • The theatre’s interior circa 1915.

    The theatre’s interior circa 1915.

  • Vibraphonist Warren Wolf, tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath, trumpet player Christian Scott and actor-comedian Bill Cosby joking about the height of a microphone during the opening.

    Vibraphonist Warren Wolf, tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath, trumpet player Christian Scott and actor-comedian Bill Cosby joking about the height of a microphone during the opening.

  • Count Basie and Bob Crosby at the theatre in 1941. Right: Ella Fitzgerald circa 1947. The singer appeared at the Howard in the 1930s.

    Count Basie and Bob Crosby at the theatre in 1941. Right: Ella Fitzgerald circa 1947. The singer appeared at the Howard in the 1930s.

Ella Fitzgerald has given concerts there. So have Sarah Vaughn, Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, James Brown and Miles Davis.

Howard was the premiere place in which black voices found a receptive audience

The Howard Theatre, the first concert hall for blacks, was reborn last week from its ashes, more than a century after it opened in Washington DC.

Closed for 32 years, this historic landmark opens its doors with a gala celebrating the renaissance of a theatrical venue with mythical status for the black community in the United States.

When it first opened on August 22, 1910, dubbed “black Broadway” 24 years before the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, the Howard Theatre proclaimed itself the the biggest concert hall in the world for people of colour.

“It was a time of great and violent discrimination against black people in America, the period when black people who were tremendous performers could not perform in all-white theatres so they founded their own theatres,” said Bernard Bemczuk, a professor of African American history at George Washington University.

The Howard Theatre was the first and the most glorious of the black theatres, he said, adding that it became the black voice, the new Negro movement.

“This new Negro movement was giving voice to black aspirations, to social and political justice, through the performing arts,” he said.

“Howard was the premiere place in which black voices found a receptive audience.”

With 1,200 seats and a façade of both neo-classical and Italian renaissance inspiration, the theatre will be a venue for several dozen performances a year, spanning jazz, blues, rock, plays and amateur contests.

The theatre launched the careers of many of the greats of black American music – including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye and the Supremes, according to the theatre.

In the 1930s, its director decided to hold amateur nights. Ella Fitzgerald was one of the winners.

The Howard’s audiences, which from the theatre’s earliest days were racially and socially mixed, also heard Sammy Davis Jr, Lionel Hampton, and Dizzie Gillespie.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president from 1933 to 1945 through much of the Depression and World War II, came with his wife Eleanor, said Mr Demczuk.

The theatre went into a period of decline after riots gutted sections of Washington’s downtown in 1968 after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, and it closed in 1970.

That was followed by a series of reopenings and closings before the building, seemingly shuttered for good in the 1980s, fell into ruin.

But about €22 million worth of restoration work, raised from private and public sources, have returned the building to its former splendour, with the original façade pierced by 17 windows.

The concert hall’s interior, surmounted by a balcony, has been redesigned to hold 650 tables which can be rapidly removed to make room for the 1,100 people expected at the debut.

The schedule for the coming weeks, put together by the Blue Note Entertainment Group, includes performances by Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and John Clegg, as well as shows featuring gospel and flamenco.

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