Historic black theater rises from the ashes in Washington

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Ella Fitzgerald has given concerts there. So have Sarah Vaughn, Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, James Brown, and Miles Davis.

The Howard Theatre, the first concert hall for blacks, is reborn this week from its ashes, more than a century after it opened in Washington DC.

Closed for 32 years, this historic landmark opens its doors Thursday evening with a gala celebrating the "renaissance" of a theatrical venue with mythical status for the black community in the United States.

When it first opened on August 22, 1910, dubbed "black Broadway" 24 years before the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, the Howard Theatre proclaimed itself the "the biggest concert hall in the world for people of color."

It was "a time of great and violent discrimination against black people in America, the period when black people who were tremendous performers could not perform in all white theaters so they founded their own theaters," said Bernard Demczuk, a professor of African American history at George Washington University.

The Howard Theatre was "the first and the most glorious" of the black theaters, he said, adding that it became "the black voice, the new Negro movement."

"This new Negro movement was giving voice to black aspirations, to social and political justice, through the performing arts," he told AFP.

"Howard was the premiere place in which black voices found a receptive audience."

With 1,200 seats and a facade of both neo-classical and Italian renaissance inspiration, the theater will be a venue for several dozen performances a year, spanning jazz, blues, rock, plays and amateur contests.

The theater launched the careers of many of the greats of black American music -- including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye and the Supremes, according to the theater.

In the 1930s, its director decided to hold amateur nights. Ella Fitzgerald was one of the winners.

The Howard's audiences, which from the theater's earliest days were racially and socially mixed, also heard Sammy Davis Jr, Lionel Hampton, and Dizzie Gillespie.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president from 1933 to 1945 through much of the Depression and World War II, came with his wife Eleanor, said Demczuk.

The theater went into a period of decline after riots gutted sections of Washington's downtown in 1968 after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, and it closed in 1970.

That was followed by a series of reopenings and closings before the building, seemingly shuttered for good in the 1980s, fell into ruin.

But about $29 million worth of restoration work, raised from private and public sources, have returned the building to its former splendor, with the original facade pierced by 17 windows.

The concert hall's interior, surmounted by a balcony, has been redesigned to hold 650 tables which can be rapidly removed to make room for the 1,100 people expected at the debut.

The schedule for the coming weeks, put together by the Blue Note Entertainment Group, includes performances over the coming weeks by Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and John Clegg, as well as shows featuring gospel and flamenco.

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