George Clinton surveyed the crowd Tuesday night and let out a soulful sigh: “Boy, do I have memories in this joint!” The legendary purveyor of funk, looking notably tidier sans his equally legendary Technicolor dreadlocks, took the Howard Theatre stage at the historic venue’s VIP grand opening concert and celebration following a $29 million renovation.
And Clinton wasn’t the only one looking spiffed up at the event: Dating back to 1910, the traditionally African American performance space that sat vacant and decaying for decades in Washington, DC’s Shaw neighborhood now shines anew, its stucco exterior façade brought back to its 1910 appearance; its cavernous interior modernized with gleaming wood surfaces, intimate booths, and jumbo screens flashing images of vintage programs for Howard performances featuring Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington.
Stripped of its detailing, this is how the Howard Theatre looked for many years before its recent restoration. (Photo: NCinDC on Flickr)
It’s an intimidating set of footsteps to follow for any performer. The Howard, billed as "the largest colored theater in the world” when it opened, hosted everyone from Booker T. Washington to Marvin Gaye until it closed its doors in the early 1980s. With an article looking at the restoration of the Howard and other historic black theaters across the country scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of Preservation magazine, we were especially excited to attend Tuesday night’s performance.
And we weren’t disappointed. In the theater’s grand tradition, Clinton, along with the Grammy-nominated Trombone Shorty, kicked off a new generation of headliners. The Howard’s lineup in the coming months includes comedian Wanda Sykes, The Roots, Chuck Berry, Chaka Khan, and Esperanza Spalding, to name a few.
The renovation itself reflects the same energetic vibe. The two-year project, headed up by the Ellis Development Group, included the re-creation of the lobby ceiling, repairing water damage and holes created during the building’s years of vacancy, and restoring or re-creating the dramatic plaster Corinthian columns that support the theater’s balcony. Inside, the theater had deteriorated so much there wasn’t much original material left to restore. Instead, workers configured the space to echo the original open design, adding state-of-the-art acoustic and video systems, a deeper stage, and administrative offices among other updates.
We especially liked the way the design incorporates the venue’s groundbreaking past. Giant glowing panels of James Brown and other performers frame the bar, for example. And the awesomely retro soundtrack (not to mention some seriously delicious appetizers) didn’t hurt. Chef Marcus Samuelsson provided the snacks Tuesday, but the Howard will offer a full restaurant and bar that offers food and drink throughout all of its shows. On Sundays, there’ll be a weekly Gospel Brunch featuring the Harlem Gospel Choir and an all-you-can-eat southern buffet (also by Samuelsson) that we can’t wait to try.
By the time Trombone Shorty and George Clinton brought down the house with their electric performance, we’d had plenty of time to take in all the sleek touches and historic nods that make the Howard’s restoration so exciting – the concert started about an hour late – but we didn’t mind in the least. After years away from the limelight, the Howard is back, and it was definitely worth the wait.
Look for more about the Howard Theatre and other historic black performance spaces in Preservation magazine’s summer issue. Subscribe today!