WASHINGTON – Gregory “Guitar Greg” Gaskins has performed around the world with the Manhattans,Elvis,Regina Bell,Al Green and others.
But his first big gig was at the Howard Theatre here during the mid-1960s. The D.C. native took the stage with another District native,Billy Stewart,at one of the nation’s oldest theaters,built in 1910 during segregation,for African American audiences.
When they had their first break,Gaskins said he came outside and thought,“Wow,I just played at the Howard Theatre.”
He said he walked across the street to a pool room where his dad used to hang out.
“He was so proud. He said,‘Yea,that’s my son. He’s playing over there at the Howard Theatre.’”
More than 30 years later,Gaskins will play his guitar there again Monday.
The theater has been closed,a victim of the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
After partial renovations and unsuccessful re-openings in the 1970s and 1980s,the theater remained vacant. Now,with $29 million in renovations,the theater opens Monday with a free community day,including tours. Ticketed events at the supper club and theater start that night with D.C. rapper,Wale.
It was at the Howard where Gaskins,66,met the Manhattans,the group famous for hits such as “Kiss and Say Goodbye” and “Shining Star.”
“They had a song called ‘Searching for my Baby,’ and it had a very important guitar part,but they didn’t have a guitar player with them,” Gaskins said. “That’s how I got the gig with the Manhattans,three notes.”
Sandra Butler-Truesdale,a hairdresser at the Poro Beauty School,now an Ethiopian restaurant,pressed and curled the manes for many of the female performers. It cost them a dollar to get their hair done.
“I’ve done everybody’s hair,from Tina Turner to Gladys Knight to the Raelettes,” she said.
Truesdale,70,traveled for two years with Ray Charles and the Raelettes and two years with James Brown as his comb-out girl.
“The first person I saw perform at the theater was Lena Horne,” Truesdale said. Horne,not yet a star,was a dancer with the chorus line. Truesdale was 5 years old.
“Historically,families came to the Howard Theatre. They brought their children there,and their children learned how to appreciate performances,” she said.
After her travelling beautician days,Truesdale got her theology degree and is a street minister. She joined the Howard Theatre Restoration Community Committee during its early days.
The 40-member committee also includes Ron Hillyer,57,a former D.C. public school janitor and current education advocate. He credits his parents and the Howard for inspiring him to pursue the arts in addition to his day job.
Hillyer has produced music and theater shows. He was a civil war soldier re-enactor in the 1989 film,“Glory,” about the first black volunteer company of the U.S. Civil War.
When he was 5 years old,Hillyer’s father took his family to the Howard. Comedian Clay Tyson was the emcee.
“They always showed a movie first,then there would be a small intermission … then the lights would come on behind stage. The band would start up. The curtains would open up,” Hillyer said.
The part he liked most as a kid was when the microphone rose from beneath the stage. “When I saw that,I was hooked,” he said.
Segregation prevented blacks from going to some theaters downtown,but anyone could come to the Howard,considered by some as the people’s theater. Hillyer said a senior member of the committee told him it was not uncommon to see a line around the corner “with nothing but white folk coming to see Ella Fitzgerald.”
The theater has bookings through September,with a variety of musical and comedy acts. The community committee also has the option of developing a show once a month. Truesdale would like shows for musicians,like Gaskins,who are a part of the D.C. Legendary Musicians group,of which she is executive director.
Supporters hope the business model – a multi-use facility and a restaurant-style theater with two bars – will make the Howard a success. The theater can seat 650 to 700 people or hold 1,000 standing. The historic and nearby Lincoln Theater has struggled financially recently.
The U Street corridor,where the two theaters are about five blocks apart,has become one of the city’s most popular neighborhoods for entertainment and shopping.
Lionell Thomas,executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities,said the Howard could attract “completely different audiences” from other theaters in the area. “The various theaters have their own set objectives,goals and identities,” he said.
Thomas said Washingtonians are avid theatergoers. In addition,“a lot of the audiences are attracted from surrounding jurisdictions to the local theaters,” he said.
A grand opening gala April 12 will raise money for a second phase of construction to include a museum,gift shop,recording studio,listening studio and conference rooms and offices.
Dr. Rodney Ellis is chairman of the not-for-profit,Howard Theater Restoration Organization and brother of Roy “Chip” Ellis,of Ellis Development Group,which did the reconstruction. The work was funded by grants from the federal and city governments and private sources.
Ellis said of other theaters,“They don’t have the rich history that we have,and as far as I know they are not a historic site,as recognized by the Department of Interior as one of America’s treasures.”
In 2000,the Howard was designated as a site for the Save America’s Treasures program. The theater intends to uphold its history as a home for black performers,but Ellis said the theater plans to welcome the entertainment from diverse cultures.
“It’s both exciting as well as something that gives you a deep sense of responsibility,” Ellis said.
This story was reported in cooperation with The Afro-American newspaper.
Reach reporter Brooke Kelly [email protected] or 202-326-9866. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.