Theater Recalls a Vivid Past

Posted April 17, 2009 at 5:45pm

A few years ago, the marquee of the Atlas Theater was just about the only remnant of its glamorous past. A once-bustling movie house that had been left to crumble and decay, the diminished landmark could perhaps have been a symbol for a neighborhood that had also fallen on hard times.

The Atlas today, however, is a thriving performing arts center and a catalyst for the resurgence of the H Street Northeast corridor.

Home to multiple theater companies, dance and musical groups, the Atlas is a multipurpose arts space that has retained the innovative spirit that marked its original incarnation.

It took some time to get there, though. Evidence of the effort to bring the theater back to life hangs in one of the hallways. A glance at photos of the broken-down building during the early stages of renovation makes it clear why Jane Lang, chairman of the Atlas board, initially balked at the idea of using the building to house her theater company.

“I immediately said, No way,’— she recalled. “It was too big. It looked bad and it smelled worse. I went home and told my husband that this was outlandish.—

The next morning, however, her attitude had changed.

“I woke up the next morning with a new idea, that we could lead the charge of redeveloping H Street,— she said.

The H Street Northeast corridor, once a thriving community of working-class families, was torn apart by rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. The area developed a reputation for being depressed and dangerous, a notion Lang says was not unfounded. It has been slow coming back.

The Atlas Theater was spared from being burned down during the turbulent time and remained a landmark even as its own exterior declined.

Originally opened as a movie theater in 1938, the Atlas was unique in both its structure and its treatment of patrons. According to Patrick Stewart, executive director of the Atlas Performing Arts Center, the original theater was one of the first establishments in Washington, D.C., to have air conditioning and to serve an integrated audience.

Movies stopped being shown in the 1970s, and despite sporadic use in the 1980s and 1990s, the building was eventually abandoned, according to Atlas communications director Jen DeMayo.

That’s how Lang found it in 2001.

Before deciding to revive the Atlas, Lang had no connections to H Street. She did, however, have a background in urban development, having been general counsel to the Housing and Urban Development Department during the Carter administration.

What had started as a goal to open a small theater space turned into the development of a unique establishment and a step toward redeeming the neighborhood.

“It was horribly depressing,— Lang said of the H Street she first saw. “Things that burned down in 1968 were still abandoned.—

That description also applied to her newly acquired renovation project. The Atlas had deteriorated rapidly when it fell to disuse, and it had to be gutted and nearly completely redone.

Despite the condition of the theater, some elements were preserved. The Lang Theater, which is the main performance space, is housed inside the old Atlas walls. A small “alley— within the complex runs between the Lang Theater and another red brick wall that was part of the storefronts of the original structure. At the end of the hall, two gold air ducts, which look more like decoration than utility pieces, are hung. They were part of the groundbreaking air conditioning system, and were the only items that could be salvaged from the old Atlas.

In 2006, the multipurpose facility was opened as the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Rather than a home for just theater companies, the space is now used by dance and musical groups as well. Collectives like the Capitol City Symphony and Step Afrika! partner with the Atlas, using office and performance spaces. The setup offers the organizations a one-stop production shop and fosters collaboration among the various artists who work there, according to Stewart.

The Atlas staff provides house management services, such as selling and checking tickets, so that the artists can focus on producing good work.

Step Afrika!, which takes its step routines all over the world, decided three years ago to make the Atlas its base in Washington. The group sets its annual home performance series at the theater.

“After touring all year, this is our chance to pull out all the stops,— said C. Brian Williams, executive director of Step Afrika!.

“We want to contribute to H Street being a great place not just for hanging out and eating, but for seeing art,— he said.

The patrons of the Atlas make up an eclectic group, Stewart said. Artistic offerings range from symphony performances to the recently staged “Zomo the Rabbit: A Hip Hop Creation Myth,— and that variety attracts diverse audiences.

“On any given weekend, we’ll have Brecht in one theater and Music Man’ in the other,— DeMayo said.

The broad spectrum of audience members presents a “tremendous opportunity— for attracting people not only to the Atlas, but to the rest of H Street as well, Stewart said.

The idea of contributing to H Street’s renewal and giving something to the community has been central to those involved in bringing the Atlas back.

Stewart said he and others working at the arts center are always looking for new ways to draw the community into performances, including staging works people can relate to and holding discussions after events.

“We’re pretty much rooted here, and that requires the community to be a part of it,— he said.

A concerted effort is being made throughout the 13 blocks that make up the corridor to develop the unique neighborhood as a destination for people from all over the city. Stewart sees the Atlas as being an anchor of that development. Shortly after its opening, several bars and restaurants sprung up nearby, creating an “economic synergy,— according to Stewart.

The blocks between 12th and 15th streets are designated as the arts and entertainment sector, referred to by some as the Atlas District. Though there is some back and forth about the sector’s proper name, no one disputes the influence that the revival of the theater has had on the area.

“It’s one of the best things that could happen in a neighborhood,— said Anwar Saleem, executive director of the business development group H Street Main Street. “That’s our own neighborhood Kennedy Center.—

The Atlas isn’t the only place to go for live theater, however. The H Street Playhouse, only a few doors down from the more well known landmark, opened in 2002 and is also contributing to the burgeoning arts scene.

The H Street Playhouse is owned by Adele and Bruce Robey, a couple that has lived in the Capitol Hill area for 35 years. About 10 years ago, they founded the Atlas Theater Project, a group that hoped to convert the abandoned building into a performing arts center.

Getting control of the Atlas “proved to be politically impossible,— Adele Robey said, so she and her husband eventually purchased the building that now houses the Playhouse.

Two companies, Theater Alliance and Forum Theatre, are in residence there, which was the first such establishment in the struggling corridor.

Robey remembers when there was no arts scene to speak of in the district. It wasn’t so long ago that she was chauffeuring audience members to Union Station after shows, because taxis would not come to the area.

“Now, of course, it’s a gold mine for taxis,— she said.

Robey praised Lang’s work with the Atlas. “What they’re doing is very, very much like the plan we had, so it’s a good thing,— she said.

The improvements are welcome, but Robey said H Street still faces many challenges, even in the increasingly busy entertainment section.

“It’s not there yet,— she said. “The bars are plenty full, but the performances aren’t full yet.—

In order to keep people coming to the Playhouse, the Robeys are developing new advertising strategies and diversifying the shows they produce.

It will likely take some time before the vision of H Street as a flourishing urban community is realized. But among those dedicated to that goal, there is a sense that, like the Atlas Theater, the neighborhood will get a second act.