The Howard Theatre opened in 1910 and served as a showcase for African American artists for more than 70 years. Billed as the “Theater for the People,” its live music, plays, vaudeville, movies, and talent contests drew audiences and performers from the city and throughout the United States. It was also home of two theatrical troupes: the Lafayette Players and the Howard University Players. The theater had a seating capacity of more than 1,200 in three levels: orchestra, balcony, and eight proscenium boxes.
The theater was founded and owned by the white-owned National Amusement Company. Andrew Thomas served as manager of the theater during its early years. Sherman Dudley, an actor, producer, and entrepreneur, leased and ran the theater beginning in 1922. Abe Lichtman, a white owner of a chain of movie houses patronized by African Americans, took over the theater in 1926.
In 1931 Duke Ellington and his band appeared at the Howard, helping to turn the theater into the place for entertainment. Shep Allen, the new manager, was responsible for the theater's rebirth. He introduced an amateur contest in the 1930s that helped to launch the careers of Billy Eckstine and Ella Fitzgerald. Pearl Bailey debuted at the Howard in the 1940s. During the 1950s and 1960s, the top acts in rock ‘n' roll and rhythm and blues played here.
By the late 1960s, due in part to racial desegregation and the 1968 riots, the theater had difficulty attracting patrons. It closed in 1970. In 1973 the Howard Theater Foundation was organized to reopen the theater and a year later obtained national historic landmark status for the theater. The theater was reopened in 1975 with Redd Foxx and Melba Moore as two of the featured acts. Go-go bands, Washington's own contribution to pop music, found audiences at the Howard. Internationally known Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers also played here in the 1970s and 1980s. The Howard Theatre was the oldest in the country featuring black artists when it closed in the early 1980s. In 2004 it is undergoing rehabilitation.
Photo: Howard Theatre advertisement. Credit: Cultural Tourism DC.
Bettye Gardner and Bettye Thomas, Journal of Negro History (October 1970): 253-265.
Richard Harrington, “Hailing the Howard,” Washington Post, June 26, 1985.
Robert K. Headley, Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, D.C. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 1999).
William H. Jones, Recreation and Amusement Among Negroes in Washington, D.C. (Washington: Howard University Press, 1927).Douglas Stevenson, “ ‘Blue Skies' May Replace Howard's ‘Stormy Weather',” Washington Post, September 12, 1987.