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In last week’s feature about the Howard Theatre, I said that a strong public-relations campaign has been central to the theater’s successful reopening. This afternoon’s ribbon cutting outside the theater confirmed that.
Amid an environment that felt like Sunday church service, a laundry list of politicians and community leaders stepped to the podium on T Street NW to reflect on the Howard’s golden era. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton spoke to the “funky” old Howard Theatre of her day, praising its moxy: “For 40 years, it has refused to give up the ghost.” (Not counting that 30-year period in which it remained closed.) Mayor Vince Gray, in a particularly emphatic address, reminisced on his younger years hanging out at the theater, even on “some days when [he] should have been somewhere else.” (Was that the mayor copping to youthful truancy?) Zachary Oxman, the artist behind the new Duke Ellington statue outside the venue, delivered a particularly pandering speech in which he needlessly mentioned having worked at a hardware store in Southeast. (The crowd was unmoved.) Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry made an appearance, too, saying repeatedly how “fantabulous” it is to see the theater open once more. He added that during his time as mayor, he refused to let the building be torn down. (Much better to let it sit empty instead.)
Strangely, none of the speakers addressed more immediate issues like programming. Steven Bensusan, president of Howard Theatre’s operator Blue Note Entertainment Group, was supposedly in the crowd, but didn’t come forward. That was an odd omission. For a theater that’s built and booked like a mainstream commercial venue, the walk down memory lane seemed treacly and inauthentic. It would have been refreshing to hear something about its new direction.
Developer Roy “Chip” Ellis, at least, had a more pragmatic take. The new streetscape outside Howard Theatre is bright and clean—-sparkling, even. He encouraged residents to take pride in the new look. “If you see a piece of trash on T Street,” he implored the crowd, “pick it up!”