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Even surrounded by fences and construction materials, The Howard Theatre has obviously gone from decaying eyesore to palatial jewel. It’s a much-deserved second chance for a local landmark that was once the prestige venue for African-American artists and audiences. Construction is still underway on the building’s interior, but we got a chance to tour the venue Tuesday evening. Unfortunately we can’t show you what we saw—-photographers aren’t permitted until work is done—-but we can give you our impressions.
Make no mistake: The place is opulent. Designed by D.C. firm Marshall Moya, the new Howard is less conventional theater, more lounge, with a modest stage (its original size) suited to small ensembles and stand-up acts. Capacity is 650 seated, 1100 standing. There are no rows of movie-house-style seats; the first level is flanked by two rows of elevated seating areas, but the front-of-stage area comes equipped with a hydraulic floor. Within 40 minutes, the floor can be fully converted from standing to seated. “The facility has a lot of flexibility now,” says developer Roy “Chip” Ellis. “It’s built for the 21st century.”
The balcony above smacks of “VIP area,” fitted with leather chairs and tables with a Brazilian-marble bar behind. (There is also a bar on the main floor.) Stage-side box seats have been removed entirely, soon to be replaced by 200-inch HD jumbo screens. Ellis says the monitors aren’t for stage views—-there isn’t really a bad seat in the house. The TVs are for advertising. That could make some audience members cringe.
But while the transformation upstairs is dramatic, the downstairs got an even bigger makeover. The Howard Theatre, formerly basementless, now has a basement with a green room, dressing rooms, offices, bathrooms, a waiting area, and, crucially, a 2,400 square-foot, banquet-sized kitchen. This is key. Ellis was quick to point out that The Lincoln Theatre, to which the Howard is still compared, doesn’t have anything like it. That hurts Lincoln’s income, big time. The new Howard, by contrast, will feature full restaurant service, with Harlem restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson designing the menu.
Those evolutions aside, the renovated Howard is awash in its own legacy. Its new facade isn’t new at all, but the original 1910 exterior, cleaned up and refitted with new ornamentation. The interior lobby and theater walls will be adorned with images and memorabilia from the venue’s heyday. But its lineup is relatively contemporary, skewing toward R&B, jazz, and hip-hop, with a handful of legacy acts thrown in for good measure. Howard’s booking and operations are handled solely—-for the next 25 years, as per their contract—-by Blue Note Entertainment, owners of the eponymous Manhattan jazz club and a clutch of other big venues in New York. (Though the city, which owns the Howard, retains 12 days a year for its own functions.)
So while questions still linger about the Howard’s troubling similarities to the Lincoln Theatre—-both are city-owned and have a long history of mismanagement and neglect—-the Howard is already working with significant advantages. Its professional management and multipurpose facilities put it several tiers above Lincoln, a fairly one-dimensional, and—-for now—-city-operated venue. Oh, and the Brazilian marble doesn’t hurt.