For almost 30 years, the nation’s oldest African-American theater has stared blankly from the corners of T and Wiltberger streets NW, a forlorn shadow of its past selves: vaudeville house, church, jazz palace, go-go club. Now, after a $29 million, one-and-a-half year-long makeover, “The People’s Theatre” is on the cusp of its latest, and perhaps greatest, rebirth.
But the Howard is city-owned, and the District has a spotty record for this kind of thing. Take a look down the road, at 13th and U streets NW, and there’s another D.C. property with a long, hard-knock history: the Lincoln Theatre, “The Jewel on U” that, even with a major renovation under its belt, hasn’t been given much chance to shine. A recent headline on neighborhood blog Left for LeDroit asked, “Will the Howard Theatre go the same way as the Lincoln Theatre?”
“It is indeed a fair question,” says Myla Moss, secretary of Howard Theatre Restoration, Inc. But the Howard, she insists, is different. This theater is working with a couple major advantages, namely, a smart developer and a savvy operator. The plan is to run it like a business.
But running a business can mean making tough decisions. Like choosing between a local manager and a big out-of-towner, or booking blockbuster acts over hosting, say, poetry readings. And a concert hall smack dab in the middle of a residential area invites more scrutiny from neighbors all too ready to break out the pitchforks when traffic begins to grate.
How is the Howard Theatre going to pull this off? Well, they have an inkling. Below, a guide to not mismanaging your historic city-owned theater.
1. Book competitively.
The Howard Theatre has roots in jazz. But the revamped venue won’t just compete with jazz clubs—it’s going up against venues like 9:30 Club and Fillmore Silver Spring.
Steven Bensusan, president of the New York-based Blue Note Entertainment Group, which won a 25-year operating agreement to run the theater, says the plan is “to make it a venue that’s very multi-genre, a space that can be utilized in different ways.” The demographic will change from night to night: The upcoming schedule darts between stand-up comedy, tap, jazz, punk, hip-hop, and old-bearded-dude rock.
That doesn’t sit well with those who’d rather see the Howard’s jazz legacy remain intact. “I felt confident that we could drive more jazz to the Howard Theatre,” says Harry Schnipper, owner of the Georgetown jazz club Blues Alley, which had initially been discussed as the operating partner for the Howard. His intention, he says, was “to bring back a lot of the artists that originally played there. And now it’s Blue Öyster Cult.” (The classic-rock band is booked for two gigs on May 4.)
But booking jazz is a tricky business. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington—then considered popular music—sold tickets in Howard’s heyday. But when jazz stopped putting butts in seats, the Howard moved on to acts like The Coasters, Fats Domino, James Brown, and later on, Melba Moore and Chuck Brown. Now, as nearby neighborhoods like LeDroit Park and Shaw rapidly gentrify, Howard Theatre Restoration, Inc. and Blue Note think diversity is key. “I think when we say ‘The People’s Theater,’” says board member Carla Sims, referring to the Howard’s long-time second name, “it doesn’t just mean black people, or white people, or Hispanic people.”
Branching out can mean stepping on toes, however. When the club’s slate was announced, there was a surprising amount of crossover with other big local venues. Pop-jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding, booked May 12, plays D.C. nearly every year, courtesy of other promoters like the Washington Performing Arts Society. The Roots, booked April 15 and 16, gigged at Fillmore Silver Spring in December. Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), booked April 14, played 9:30 Club in February. Tap dancer Savion Glover, appearing April 27, just played the Warner Theatre. Comic Wanda Sykes, who will play three nights during Howard’s opening week, sold out Strathmore in February.
Some of that overlap was intentional, some not. Bensusan says they had no idea Yasiin Bey had just played around the corner, but DMV native Sykes was personally interested in playing the venue. (When reached, the comedian said she had never been to the old Howard, but she did like playing the D.C. area.)
Booking the same artists within a few months isn’t usually a good idea, for the obvious reason that it can lead to limp ticket sales. But because it can also tick off established venues and lure acts away from longstanding relationships with other promoters, the practice can be interpreted as a showing of teeth. Bensusan doesn’t seem bothered by the slight faux pas. “We’ve all been in the business for a long time,” he says, referring to his local competition. “And in the end, the best room will win out.”
The Howard’s primary goal, it seems, is to achieve profitability—artistic heritage be damned.
2. Haul in a professional management group.
It’s as counterintuitive as it gets: a civic treasure, a monument to Washington’s Black Broadway, being outsourced to a bunch of New Yorkers.
Where’s the hometown love? “Oh sure, naturally, you always want to have your locally grown organic talent and entities,” says Moss, who’s also chairman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1B, which encompasses the Howard’s neighborhood. “But for us to secure the commitment from the city, for us to secure the commitment from lenders, we had to show that we had an entity that would…know what it is doing.”
Enter Blue Note, which also runs clubs in Manhattan, Cambridge, Baltimore, Milan, and two cities in Japan. (It’s unrelated to the Blue Note record label.) “The way we operate our venues is very similar to the vision of the [Howard’s] developers when they were looking for someone to rent the space,” says Bensusan. “Given our history and what we’ve done over the past 30 years, it just kind of made sense.” A fringe benefit is that Blue Note, with venues up and down the East Coast, can book mini-tours for artists, making it easier for some performers to hit D.C.
Blue Note has at least hired a few locals to work behind the scenes. Its general manager is Sasha Ebady, who previously managed Capital Restaurant Concepts, which operates Georgia Brown’s and D.C’s two J-Pauls locations, among other eateries. The club’s marketing director is Marc Powers, a local promoter who books concerts under the name MN8 Enterprises. Powers, according to Bensusan, will serve as Blue Note’s local-music radar.
Blues Alley’s Schnipper says he isn’t still miffed about getting shut out. But he questions why the board and Ellis Development Group, who oversaw the theater’s restoration, decided to go with Blue Note instead. “They sold the District of Columbia…on the fact that Blues Alley would be the entertainment operator,” he says. Ellis Development Group CEO Roy “Chip” Ellis only says Blues Alley “wasn’t the right fit.”
But maybe Blues Alley dodged a bullet. The other benefit of hauling in an out-of-town pro? Should the Howard fail to make a return on its investments, the District can pass the buck to those damn New Yorkers.
3. Construct a flexible space.
Every inch of the Howard is built to make money.
The old theater, a flat-faced box worn down from neglect, sat decaying after numerous attempts to turn it around in the 1970s and ’80s. As the revitalization was hatched, two banners hung from the front, promising “the rebirth of a landmark” for its centennial in 2010. Eventually, construction crews tore off the stucco that concealed the theater’s original white Roman brick façade, and rediscovered windows long bricked over. It’s a historically accurate redux, but step into the lobby of the new Howard, and the time machine is set to 2012.
Inside is a cabaret-style venue that oozes 21st-century luxe. Its grown-and-sexy vibe comes courtesy of D.C. design firm Marshall Moya, which specializes in a type of walnut-and-marble modernity. A few nods to the past line the walls: Lobby cases display memorabilia from Howard’s golden years, and the concert room is splashed with large lightboxes showing the faces of jazz and blues stars.
But the setup isn’t only meant to dazzle—it’s intended to maximize income. The venue is a swanky mash-up of concert hall, supper club, and corporate-event playground. A section of the main floor is hydraulic, meaning it can transform from open to tabled in less than 40 minutes. A fundraiser and a comedy show on the same night? No problem. Cha-ching. Capacity is 650 seated, and 1,100 standing, meaning it’s almost like two venues in one. Cha-ching. Two spacious, marble bars stretch across the first and second floors, both with service elevators. Cha-ching. It’s got a brand-new basement with a 2,400-square foot banquet-sized kitchen. Cha-ching. The deluxe second-floor balcony can be a VIP area with pricey admission. Cha-ching. Those 200-inch high-definition screens on either side of the stage? They can display paid advertising. Cha-ching.
Compare that with the Lincoln, which is a fine house for theater and big concerts, but lousy for much else. Its fixed seats make boozy fundraisers a near-impossibility. It’s too big and long to comfortably show movies, and too small to compete with the Kennedy Center or the Warner. Even employing a full in-house staff is tough for the Lincoln, because it lacks sufficient office space.
4. Serve food and alcohol. Gobs of it.
Food and drink was so critical to the Howard’s profitability that the construction crew dug out a basement just to add a kitchen. Dining and drinking could gross millions each year. Bensusan promises—boastfully—that the Howard Theatre will offer a supper-club atmosphere unlike any other in the D.C. area: “There are other venues in the market where you can sit down and see shows and eat, but the quality here is going to be far beyond anything that D.C. has currently.”
To glitz up the dining, Blue Note brought in Marcus Samuelsson, essentially the definition of celebrity chef. The owner of Harlem’s Red Rooster has also either judged or appeared on nearly every chef competition on television. He’s a huge get, but the menu he’s crafted for the Howard sounds awfully familiar: shrimp and grits, short ribs, fried catfish. Diners could walk a few blocks and get very similar stuff at Eatonville or Ben’s Next Door.
Plates will be dished by a more obscure local chef, Aaron Flores, who’s done time at the Finn & Porter at The Embassy Suites Convention Center, and before that, numerous hotels, including 12 years at the Walt Disney Company.
5. Shut out the city.
D.C. should not be in the business of running theaters. It sucks at it.
Exhibit A: Lincoln Theatre. After sinking $9 million into its renovation and reopening its doors in 1994, D.C. contracted a nonprofit community group, the U Street Theatre Foundation, to make decisions. Over the years, the board’s various incarnations struggled to make ends meet—even after Arena Stage produced a massively successful run of Sophisticated Ladies there in 2010. The D.C. Council propped it up with annual subsidies for the better part of a decade, until last year, when Mayor Vince Gray declared the theater’s business model unsustainable, and the foundation’s contract was terminated. Now, the Lincoln is in the hands of D.C.’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities, an entity with a strained budget and questionable expertise in theater management. Executive Director Lionell Thomas, a longtime public servant, doesn’t have any experience running theaters; his mission now is to find a new director for the theater and put it on the path toward success.
But it seems the city has a much less hands-on relationship with the new Howard Theatre. “Our interaction with the city is minimal,” says Bensusan. Blue Note works regularly with the board, but says their relationship is like that of a subletter and a lease-holder.
6. Build a PR machine.
One of the Lincoln’s biggest obstacles has been a lack of marketing, yet another consequence of its limited resources. That makes it tough to court potential renters.
The Howard, meanwhile, has invested heavily in PR, employing the luxury-oriented company BrandLink DC to handle its media relations. It’s buttering up the community, too: Its ribbon cutting and “community day” on April 9 will be free and open to the public, and Ellis Development Group COO Malik Ellis says the venue will be available for community use 12 days a year. (The city also gets 12 days.) On April 12, the theater hosts a fundraiser gala for Phase 2 of its restoration: the Howard Theatre Culture and Education Center, a multiuse education facility off the back of the venue.
But perhaps a high-dollar PR company and an education center isn’t even necessary to woo District taxpayers. “The residents of Washington, D.C. [have] a sincere fondness and commitment and a nostalgic kind of bond with this theater,” says Moss. “Even though it fell into the margins of policymakers over the years, it’s always kind of been a little silent drum tapping—Howard Theatre, Howard Theatre.”