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WASHINGTON — Before there was the Apollo in Harlem, there was the Howard Theatre in the nation's capital.
The nearly 102-year-old Howard officially lifts its curtain once again Thursday for a reopening gala after a $29 million renovation that began in 2010. Smokey Robinson, Savion Glover and Madeleine Peyroux will perform, along with Chaka Khan, Boyz II Men and others.
From the red carpet, actress and singer Leslie Uggams said she last came to the Howard to perform when she was 10 years old in the 1950s. She said it was part of a circuit of top-ranked black theaters and she remembers saying, "Wow!" as she walked inside.
"You played the Apollo, you played the Royal Theater in Baltimore and you played the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.,'" she said. "If you were asked to play there, that meant you had arrived."
Comedian Dick Gregory said returning to the Howard is a reminder of an era of segregation. But the Howard welcomed black performers well before the Apollo and other places because it was in a majority black neighborhood.
"You had some acts that could work in Vegas, but you couldn't stay in the hotels," Gregory said. "Here, you felt like you were with family."
Fifty years ago, Dionne Warwick performed her first album, "Don't Make Me Over," at the Howard. She said it has taken too long to bring the cherished venue back.
Motown records founder Berry Gordy said he remembers coming to the Howard with Smokey Robinson, and they've been best friends ever since. Gordy is being honored at the theater's opening.
Robinson said he remembers being "scared to death" when he first sang at the Howard when he was about 16. He said it looks great after the restoration.
"I grew up in this theater, so I've had some really wonderful times here," he said. "This was the Apollo of Washington, D.C."
Bill Cosby joined the celebration, offering a tribute to jazz and making fun of the musicians.
"What happened to your hair, boy?" Cosby asked New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott, making fun of his hair because it was sticking up and shaved on the sides. "I'm going to tell you one thing, you better play."
"I'm going to try," Scott said.
When Washington's U Street corridor was known as the "Black Broadway" in an era of segregation, the Howard was a crown jewel through the 1960s. It opened in 1910, touted as the "largest colored theater in the world." It launched careers for Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes and Ella Fitzgerald, among others. It began to suffer, though, after the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination damaged much of the neighborhood, and competitors built newer and larger venues. The Howard closed in 1980.
By comparison, Harlem's famous Apollo Theater first opened as a burlesque theater in 1914, and African-Americans were not allowed inside. It later reopened as the Apollo in 1934 and focused on the growing black community in Harlem.
The Howard was left neglected and shuttered since its doors were closed. It remained vacant for 30 years and fell into disrepair, its roof caving in, allowing water to destroy much of the historic interior.
Still, pieces of history remain. The stage is in the same place and size as it was when Fitzgerald won an early Amateur Night contest. So is the balcony, where audiences listened to the music of Sammy Davis Jr., Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Lena Horne, and the words of Booker T. Washington, Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley. Some of the columns holding up the balcony have been preserved, and the original exterior facade has been restored.
The theater's new operators, from the New York-based Blue Note Entertainment Group, said they were compelled to take on the Howard after hearing encouragement from Bill Cosby and other entertainers who remember the theater's heyday.
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