WASHINGTON — A historic theater where Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole performed on the strip once known as America's "Black Broadway" could close within a month after subsidies from the District of Columbia have been cut off.
Board members overseeing the Lincoln Theatre said the nonprofit group had just $50,000 in cash on hand Thursday and monthly operating costs of $60,000 for the U Street theater. The board appealed to Mayor Vincent Gray to provide funding from the city's $89 million in surplus tax revenue from 2011.
"How can he stand by and let a historic African-American institution fall apart?" said board member Rick Lee, who has owned a flower shop nearby for decades. Without city funding, "closing the doors at the end of the year will be inevitable," he said.
It's not clear, though, if the theater could stay open past the end of October. Board Secretary Cynthia Robbins said the theater's telephone was cut off in July because of unpaid bills, prompting a late subsidy of $250,000 from the city. The group is asking for $500,000 for the next year to support its $1.7 million budget.
The Lincoln is owned by the city but is licensed to the nonprofit group to operate. For years it received a subsidy of $250,000, though the mayor has called the arrangement "unsustainable." The nonprofit board asked donors Thursday to help the theater stay open.
Lincoln Theatre opened in 1922 to serve Washington's black residents during segregation but closed in 1983. It was restored and reopened in 1994 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. More recently, it has hosted popular productions by Arena Stage and other arts groups.
Virginia Ali, 78, who opened the famous Ben's Chili Bowl with her late husband Ben next door to the theater in 1958, said she is surprised the city isn't providing more help because the theater has long drawn people to U Street.
"This is a great asset to our great city," Ali said, recalling the days when she danced to the tunes of Count Basie and Ellington at the Lincoln. "It was called 'Black Broadway' back then."
"When a first-rate movie came to town, it went downtown and it came to U Street" because the city was segregated, she said.
Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong performed regularly on the Lincoln's stage. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had birthday parties there, and Langston Hughes once wrote a poem titled "Lincoln Theatre."
The theater now has six full-time staff members, including an executive director who is paid $80,000. Board members said the theater wasn't able to make payroll at times. Lee called the theater's relationship with the city "dysfunctional" and said the mayor wasn't returning telephone calls.
The theater had hoped to restage a production of Ellington's "Sophisticated Ladies," which Arena Stage produced at the Lincoln last year. It was Arena's top-grossing show ever at the time. But planning future programs is impossible without more certain funding, Robbins said.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham, who sits on the theater's board, said there may be hope of securing city funding, especially because the district had provided millions to Ford's Theatre and Arena Stage. But he said the Lincoln is running out of time.
"What's certain is we're fast running out of money," Graham said. "It can't last long."
Lincoln Theatre: http://www.thelincolntheatre.org
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