02 December 2011

Lincoln & Howard Theatres: Stages of History

Over the past few months, I’ve written a couple of articles relating to Washington’s Arena Stage (see “Oklahoma!,” 17 October, and “Washington’s Arena Stage: Under Construction,” 26 November). In both of those, I mentioned that while Arena was displaced from its home theater while the company was rebuilding, it staged some of its productions in the historic Lincoln Theatre in downtown D.C. I mentioned in passing that the Lincoln and its sister theater, the Howard, were storied houses in the entertainment history of Washington—and that they had a connection to my family. Let me sketch out that last bit first so you can see why I have an interest in these two old theaters in the inner city of the Nation’s Capital.

I was born in Washington, one of a small percentage of residents in those days who were natives rather than transplants. Until not long ago, maybe two generations, Washington was mostly known as a company town—the “company” being the federal government. Almost everyone who lived in D.C. back then was connected to the government in some way, either as a federal employee, an elected or appointed official, a staffer in some branch of the government, or a government contractor or lobbyist. And that’s not even counting the foreign diplomatic corps. Most of these were transients—though they may have lived in Washington for years or even decades before returning “home” to wherever they came from originally. Unless you were part of the other, hidden segment of Washington’s population, you may never even have met a real Washingtonian—that is, someone who sold cars, painted houses, served food, ran a store, or worked for a company that had no business with the government. Except for a very short time in the early and mid-’60s, I was part of that Washington. (My dad was a Foreign Service officer from 1961 to 1967.) My folks came to the District right after my father mustered out of the army following World War II and married my mom. Mom and Dad were New Yorkers (though my mother’s family had moved to New Jersey when she was a child), but after the war, my grandfather offered his son-in-law and the new husband of one of my mom’s cousins jobs in Washington. It was a great deal, jobs being hard to come by with so many servicemen returning to civilian life. So the two pairs of newly-weds moved south and began careers at District Theatres, a corporation in which my grandfather had a substantial interest. The work of District Theatres Corporation was operating movie theaters in Washington, Richmond, and other cities across the South, mostly in what were then African-American neighborhoods.

The Lincoln and Howard Theatres were the twin flagships of District Theatres, which owned them between about 1946 and 1965. One was next door to and the other around the corner from my dad’s office at 12th and V Streets where I used to visit him when I was little. They were first-run houses, playing the current films from Hollywood. Now, my birthday is on Christmas, which is hell on a kid trying to throw a birthday party—everyone’s away on vacation then. So for a few years we tried celebrating my birthday in the summer; it really didn’t work out much better, but in 1957, that’s what we were doing. So on one June afternoon, I was going to have my belated tenth-birthday party—but I got a special treat first. Before the party, I went downtown with my dad and he took me next door to the Lincoln where he turned me over to the company’s handyman and jack-of-all trades, Joe Mona, who escorted me up to the projection booth where I got to see Disney’s Johnny Tremain while I watched the projectionist run the huge, grainy, charcoal-black machines that projected the movie onto the screen below. I had to watch through the narrow slits through which the projectors’ lenses extended, but I was really much more interested in watching the projectionist operate the machines—they still ran on limelight then and you had to watch through a tiny, thick-paned window in the barrel-shaped side to be sure the flame didn’t burn too bright or go out from mishandling—and change the reels. The projectionist explained to me how he knew when to key up the next reel and when to start the second projector so there wouldn’t be a break in the film’s continuity. He showed me the symbols embedded in the film, little flares in the upper right corner of the frame, that warned him when to get ready and then when to flip the switch. He showed me how to load the reels, how to rewind the film, and how to remove the reels and put them back in their storage cans so they’d be ready for the next showing in the right order. There were three projectors in the booth, but only two were used for a movie; the third was a backup in case something happened to one of them—like the limelight going out. The projectionist used the spare machine to show me how they worked and how to light the limelight, which isn’t easy to do. Lime burns very bright but it’s not easy to ignite, which is why you don’t want it to go out during the run of a film. It also burns very hot, so the little projection booth gets mighty warm during a movie. But I can tell you, I didn’t care one bit—I was having a great time. I think the projectionist also enjoyed showing a wide-eyed kid the wonders of his job—something I don’t imagine he got to do very often. (Years later, a friend of mine described her son’s delight in something or another and her phrase stuck with me; it’s very applicable here: I was in 10-year-old-kid heaven!)

I don’t remember my tenth birthday party later that day. It may have been a pool party, which we did once or twice during the years we had my party in the summer, or it may have been a party in our backyard at home, or even in Rock Creek Park at the bottom of our street. I don’t recall. But I still remember that morning—the movie’s listed as 80 minutes, a short feature, but my recollection is that it filled my day! Actually, I don’t remember the movie all that much, either—but I remember the projection booth. It’s over half a century later and I still recall the experience vividly so you know I was impressed. That’s what the Lincoln Theatre means to me.

The Lincoln, located as 1215 U Street, N.W., between 12th and 13th Street, opened in 1922 to serve the African-American audiences of the District, which was then a segregated city. (Washington, the majority of whose population was black, was under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress, in particular the House and Senate Committees on the District of Columbia, which controlled the city’s administration, budget, and laws. The memberships of the prestigious committees were largely Southern Democrats, known as Dixiecrats, who prided themselves on keeping the races separated.) It was the center of an African-American cultural revival that predated the Harlem Renaissance. Poet Langston Hughes spoke of the importance of the theater in a 1949 poem called “Lincoln Theatre”:

The head of Lincoln looks down from the wall
While movies echo dramas on the screen.
The head of Lincoln is serenely tall
Above a crowd of black folk, humble, mean.
The movies end. The lights flash gaily on.
The band down in the pit bursts into jazz.
The crowd applauds a plump brown-skinned bleach blonde
Who sings the troubles every woman has.
She snaps her fingers, slowly shakes her hips,
And cries, all careless-like from reddened lips!
De man I loves has
Gone and done me wrong . . .
While girls who wash rich white folks clothes by day
And sleek-haired boys who deal in love for pay
Press hands together, laughing at her song.
Billed as The Jewel on U, the Lincoln’s first offerings were silent movies and vaudeville but in 1928 it was wired for sound and installed a ballroom, the Lincoln Colonnade, in an effort to become a grand movie palace. The theater and the Colonnade, where even President Franklin D. Roosevelt had his birthday parties, were considered the center of Washington’s “Black Broadway,” a title coined by singer Pearl Bailey, eventually hosting other performers such as native Washingtonian Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughn, among many others. In 1952, the theater was equipped with a television-projection system to show prizefights.

After Washington desegregated in the mid-’50s, the Lincoln struggled and the Colonnade was demolished to save maintenance costs. Around that time, it ceased offering live stage shows and became solely a movie theater. Along with the Howard and much of the neighborhood, the Lincoln was badly damaged in the riots that followed the 4 April 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis and it fell into disrepair. The movie house was divided into two theaters in 1978, renamed the Lincoln Twin, and started showing all-night movies on weekends, attracting large audiences. In 1983, however, the Lincoln was sold and closed for renovation, remaining dark for many years.

Ten years later, the theater was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and the restoration was completed with financial assistance from the District of Columbia, returning the building to much of its original eclectic appearance with restored Victorian, Neo-Classical, and Art-Deco details. The 1250-seat Lincoln reopened on 4 February 1994 with a performance of Barry Scott's Ain't Got Long to Stay Here, the playwright-actor’s monodrama about Martin Luther King, Jr. From 21 February to 5 March 1995, Lincoln Theatre hosted Where Eagles Fly, a play by local writer Carole Mumin that tells the story of Ostray Brown, an elderly activist who fought the redevelopment of the Lincoln Theatre that targeted the neighborhood for demolition, and sought to preserve the neighborhood and its history.

Since its reopening, the Lincoln, now owned by the city, has hosted theater and music performances as well as political events such as the mayor's annual State of the District address. Musical shows have included Cassandra Wilson, Quincy Jones, Chuck Brown, Wynton Marsalis, and, in 2005, the first annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival. Other performers at the Lincoln Theatre have included singer Brian Stokes Mitchell and comedian Dick Gregory. Starting in September 2008 with Carrie Fisher’s one-woman, autobiographical performance Wishful Drinking, the Arena Stage began producing some of its season at the Lincoln while its home theater in Southwest was being reconstructed. Other Arena shows produced at the Lincoln included Regina Taylor’s Crowns (27 March-26 April 2009) and Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies starring Maurice Hines (9 April-6 June 2010), which became the company’s highest-grossing production in its history. In recent years, the theater has struggled financially and has relied on city funding to keep the wrecking ball at bay. Other theater troupes are also using the Lincoln for their productions and the theater can be rented. The Lincoln Theatre is considered an important part of the city’s black cultural history and efforts continue to try to preserve it.

The Howard Theatre, at 620 T Street, N.W., opened in 1910 and was placed on the NRHP in 1974. Before the Apollo in New York (1913) or the Regal in Chicago (1928), the Howard, named for its proximity to Washington‘s traditionally black university, was an important entertainment venue for black audiences and performers. Seating 1200, the lavishly decorated theater boasted a balcony and box seats as well as the orchestra. The exterior was decorated with Beaux-Arts, Italian Renaissance, and Neo-Classical elements, and the building was topped by a concrete statue of Apollo playing the lyre. Called The Theater of the People, the Howard hosted both the Lafayette Players of Harlem (1916–1932), Anita Bush’s pioneering African-American theater troupe, and the Howard University Players (founded in 1925), the university’s student drama group. Entertainers shared the stage with illustrious speakers like Booker T. Washington and the theater was also an important stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit, the black vaudeville tour.

When the Depression struck in 1929, the theater became a church for a couple of years and then, in 1931, returned to entertainment with an appearance of Washington‘s favorite son, Duke Ellington, and his band. In the ’30s, the Howard, under the management of Shep Allen, also hosted an amateur contest that boosted performers like Billy Eckstine and Ella Fitzgerald to illustrious careers in show business. In the 1940s, the building was remodeled in a more contemporary style and lost much of its ornate façade, but it was still a hot spot. During World War II, FDR attended balls at the Howard featuring entertainment by Danny Kaye, Abbott and Costello, and Cesar Romero, among others. During that decade, Pearl Bailey made her début at the Howard and “Pigmeat” Markham was a popular and frequent figure on its stage. In the ’50s and ’60s, the theater became a venue for rock ’n’ roll and R&B, with appearances by important figures such as Buddy Holly, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, Sammy Davis, Jr., James Brown and the Flames, Otis Redding, Lena Horne, and Lionel Hampton, as well as Motown and Stax recording stars.

In the late 1960s, when I was in college in Virginia, just a few hours south of D.C., I was the social director of my fraternity for a year. My dad, who’d left District Theatres by this time, was still in contact with his old colleagues, however. Since the Howard, which still had live shows when I was growing up, unlike the Lincoln, had to be booked by someone in the management, I asked my dad to put me onto someone who could help me book good and interesting bands that maybe hadn’t made the rounds of all the colleges in the District, Maryland, and Virginia yet. I was able to do just that—my frat had the rep that year for really good house parties because I went outside the usual box for our entertainment, including one all-female rock combo (they were really popular on my all-men’s campus!) and an unknown soul group called Willie and the Hand Jives, who tore up the joint. (The 1958 Johnny Otis song from which the group took its name had faded from our memories by 1967 and the Eric Clapton cover didn’t appear until 1974, but I swear half the students I met for a week after that party were humming “Hand Jive.”) So I got a little personal boost from the Howard, however obliquely.

Just as it had for the Lincoln Theatre, desegregation in Washington took its toll: the U Street Corridor, as it’s known now, had been a place of class and culture for the black community and the city in general, but the inner city started to become less and less desirable and deteriorated into a derelict slum that few wanted to visit, especially at night. The same unrest in 1968 that shuttered the Lincoln closed the Howard in 1970. It reopened in 1973 with the involvement of the Howard Theatre Foundation and in 1975, comedian Redd Foxx and singer Melba Moore were featured on its stage; “Pigmeat” Markham also made a return to popularity in the ‘60s and ‘70s after his most famous routines were performed by Sammy Davis on TV’s Laugh-In. The theater finished the decade with performances of the pop bands of the era, but in 1980 the Howard closed its doors again, this time for three decades. (An episode of the 2000-2004 TV drama The District, which starred Craig T. Nelson as the new police chief of Washington, had scenes taped in front of the shuttered Howard Theatre.) Plans had been to reopen the newly restored and up-dated Howard, its long-missing statue of Apollo replaced with The Jazz Man by artist Brower Hatcher, a modern aluminum-mesh figure lit internally by LED’s, on the theater’s 100th birthday in 2010, but that goal was missed. The current date for the reopening is April 2012.

The Howard and the Lincoln Theatres are part of the city’s and the community’s collective historical memories and there always seems to be someone who’s stood in the way of the developer’s bulldozer. The whole of downtown D.C. is being reinvigorated and reclaimed one neighborhood at a time—14th Street, Adams-Morgan, Logan Circle, the U Street Corridor—and there’s more than just hope that both theaters will survive and return to a 21st-century version of their former glory as palaces of entertainment and local culture. It helps to remember that the historic Ford’s Theatre, closed for over a century after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, was restored to theatrical life in 1968. It doesn’t hurt, either, that the District has developed a vibrant cultural life that didn’t exist in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, giving some support to the revival of these two historical houses. Obviously, it takes capital (no pun intended: capital in the Capital), but that’s all it takes: the will seems to be there. My mom still passes on any news regarding the Lincoln and the Howard—even though my dad left District Theatres in 1961 and the corporation, which had sold the theaters in about 1965, went out of business long ago. For personal reasons, however, I fervently hope the preservationists will beat the developers this time.

[It may be helpful, or at least interesting, to provide an elementary précis of the political history of Washington. Unique in the United States, the status of the District of Columbia was established when the city was founded in 1791. Congress approved the creation of the federal district, separate from any state, according to Article One, Section Eight of the United States Constitution. In fear that the residents of the federal city might become subject to the pressures of the politicians and parties that ruled in the city, Washingtonians were denied the right to vote for the President and Vice President of the United States and had no representation in the House of Representatives or the Senate or elected city administration. Washingtonians, however, pay the same taxes New Yorkers, Californians, or Texans do. The laws of the District and the administrators of the city were ordained by Congress, principally the members of the House and Senate Committees on the District of Columbia, which also determined the city’s budget and appropriated the funds the city could spend on roads, schools, police, or firefighters. Washington, D.C., is tantamount to America’s last colony and there is an active, though unsuccessful, D.C. statehood movement.

[This remained the status for 170 years, until 1961 when the passage of the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution granted citizens of the District of Columbia the right to vote in presidential elections. (The rules for primary elections are determined by the political parties so Washingtonians had been allowed to vote for candidates for several years, just as Puerto Ricans and Samoans can.) The District was assigned three electoral votes, equivalent to the number of senators (two) and representatives (one) it would have if it were a state. In 1971, the District was allowed to elect and seat a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives; the delegate, currently Eleanor Holmes Norton, may vote in committee—she is
ex officio a member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform which in 1987 subsumed the House District Committee—but she has no vote on the floor of the House, though she may speak in the chamber. In 1973, Congress passed the Home Rule Act giving the District political control over much of its own affairs. For the first time, Washingtonians could elect their own mayor (the first one was, ironically, Walter E. Washington) and city council. Through the mayor, who appoints a cabinet like most city executives across the U.S., the District also gained local control of most of its services like police, fire, education, motor vehicles, building regulation, and so on. (This is not to say that the District has always had an efficient and corruption-free government—but it was nevertheless in control of its own day-to-day affairs.) The mayor and the council may set taxes and establish a budget for the city, but those actions must be approved by Congress. In 1990, the office of Shadow Senator was established for the District of Columbia. With less authority than the delegate in the House, shadow senators have no voting power in Congress and aren’t sworn into office, though they are addressed as “Senator,” especially locally. The office is largely ceremonial, but the position is considered prestigious; the first two Shadow Senators from the District of Columbia were Jesse Jackson (1991-1996) and Florence Pendleton (1991-2007); their successors are Paul Strauss and Michael D. Brown, respectively.

[Like Delegate Norton, the shadow senators are all Democrats, as have been all the city’s mayors. In fact, that Washington is overwhelmingly Democratic in voter registration is one important reason the movement for statehood or some similar status that would grant the citizens of D.C. representation in Congress has been unsuccessful so far. A move like that would have to be approved by Congress, as well as supported by a Constitutional Amendment, and that would almost certainly mean two more Democratic seats in the Senate and one more in the House. Republican members of Congress resist any increase in the number of Democrats in the legislature unless they can balance it with an equal increase in Republican membership. (The same impediment blocks serious consideration of the admission of Puerto Rico as a state: it, too, is overwhelmingly Democratic. That also precludes the pairing of D.C. statehood with admission of Puerto Rico at the same time the way Democratic Hawaii was admitted to the Union only after Republican Alaska was admitted.) Further complicating the issue in the past was the fact that service on the two District Committees was considered prestigious and no senator or representative wanted to vote him- or herself off a cushy panel like that. It was a no-risk assignment: nothing the members did affected a constituent back home—the residents of the District didn’t vote for any of the legislators controlling their fates—and they could always go home and brag how they kept the budget in Washington low and cut its appropriations. (In the bad old days of Jim Crow, the committee members from the South could also go back and show how they held the line against desegregation in the Nation’s Capital. That was always worth a few hundred votes.) Mostly, members of Congress just like having control over the District and they’re loathe to give it up.

[Desegregation in Washington is also a complex story. Officially, the District of Columbia was desegregated legally in 1917, but the law largely went unenforced. Washington was and remains a southern city—it’s below the Mason-Dixon Line—and even without the delegates from the southern states, the population of the city is southern by culture. Remember that Virginia, the heart of the Confederacy, is just across the river; the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, is less than three hours’ drive away. On the other side of the city is Maryland, a border state in the Civil War. That means it didn’t officially take sides, but what it really meant is that it sympathized with the South but wouldn’t commit to secession. (John Wilkes Booth, the Confederate-sympathizing actor who shot President Lincoln, was a Marylander. Actors could travel back and forth across the battle lines, and there is much evidence that Booth had served as a Confederate spy, carrying messages and intelligence from the North to the military leaders of the South.) So when Washington began to desegregate in fact, it happened piecemeal: federal offices in 1948, the National Theatre in 1952, the restaurants in 1953, parks and recreation facilities and then the schools in 1954, and so on. The laws of the District, remember, weren’t written by Washingtonians then: they were made by Congress. (This same fact had other effects on city life: the liquor tax was kept very low so booze was cheap in the District and taxi fares were kept low by mandating a zone system instead of a metered time-and-distance system. Even a bad system can have good results.)

[In the days when District Theatres first owned the Lincoln and the Howard Theatres, Washington lived under this system. As was customary in those days, the executive leadership of District Theatres Corporation was white. My grandfather was the chairman of the board, his niece’s husband was president of the company, and my father was the vice president. Many key employees, however, were black, which was not always common practice in Jim Crow America. Shep Allen, who managed the Howard for decades, was a beloved and honored figure in the community and a significant figure in the cultural force that the theater represented. Like many of the theaters managers, he was an African American. (Audiences, of course, were largely black since the theaters were intended to serve that community, but the performers with national followings, especially the later rock and pop singers and comics like Foxx and Sammy Davis, attracted mixed crowds.) I can’t say that District Theatres broke any ground for integration in the ’50s, but it didn’t exploit the situation, either. Our theaters were well appointed and maintained and showed the best movies available at the same ticket prices as the other chains in town. As I understood it later, particularly at the time of the death of my cousin’s father in 1975, the company was well regarded both in the business community of Washington and among the city’s African Americans.]

1 comment:

  1. On Monday, 9 April, Don Baxter wrote in the "Washington Examiner": “After years of neglect, historic Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. reopened Monday, following a $29 million renovation. Dignitaries and everyday folks shared fervent memories of the once-thriving black entertainment mecca with a new generation.” Baxter continued:

    “Speaking of The Howard, Mayor Vincent Gray said: ‘It is one of the true monuments and milestones here in the District of Columbia.’

    . . . .

    “A Grand Opening Gala is planned for April 12, and will feature performances and appearances by Smokey Robinson, Raheem DeVaughn, Lalah Hathaway, and Al Jarreau, to name a few.”

    The 12 April gala took place with great success, ushering in a new era for the Howard and, we hope, the U Street Corridor.