A Time-Haunted Theater Treasure

Posted June 19, 2009 at 2:39pm

Janice Hill, executive director of the Lincoln Theatre, knows she is not the venue’s only guiding force.

Ghosts of African-American entertainers and intellectuals who populated the large theater around the time of the Harlem Renaissance influence the theater’s vision. In fact, she said, one of them still makes his presence known.

“One of the crew guys swears that he was washing his hands, and he looked up in the mirror and saw Duke [Ellington] do a little jig. And he said, No, no, no, I’m tripping. I’m tripping,’— Hill recalled, laughing. “He looked up again, and he saw him again. He hasn’t been in that bathroom since.—

Restored to the splendor Ellington would have expected, the Lincoln Theatre again anchors the U Street Corridor. The spacious venue showcases a hybrid of community and national performances.

When it first opened in 1922, the theater became the hub of Washington’s “Black Broadway,— a place where audiences experienced not only theater but also music and cinema. Among the actors and musicians who performed there were Bessie Smith, Freddie Washington, W.C. Handy, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Cab Calloway.

Yet desegregation in the 1950s allowed African-Americans to go beyond U Street for nightlife.

“As Black Washingtonians moved their homes and businesses to other parts of the city and began frequenting businesses that were previously closed to them, the U Street Corridor was left vulnerable to the social unrest that marked the 1960s,— said the theater’s promotional materials. The theater shut down in 1979.

The District became owner of the building, and it underwent a $7 million renovation, reopening in early 1994 under the management of the nonprofit U Street Theatre Foundation. Hill said before the city intervened, anyone sitting in the seats could look up and see the sky through the roof.

Hill joined the U Street Theatre Foundation in 2006. Though she has no theater background, she has extensive experience in managing large events. Hill worked for Sony in New York City for 18 years and served as interim executive director of the Grammys. But when her sister worked in President Bill Clinton’s administration, Hill grew to like the area. She moved to Washington, D.C., in 2003 to work for the Congressional Black Caucus.

As leader of the Lincoln Theatre, Hill served as the point of contact for the city’s most recent renovations of the building. The D.C. Office of Property Management completed another major renovation costing $1.7 million in the fall of 2008. As is appropriate for a building that is nearly 90 years old, it undergoes constant maintenance. A case in point, the theater will close to major events for maintenance this summer, and Hill will announce the new schedule in September.

[IMGCAP(1)]The theater seats more than 1,200 with about 600 in the balcony and another 600 below. The red seats and carpeting complement the gold wallpaper that mimics the pattern there when the theater was in its heyday. Visitors can find new details everywhere they look — on the ceiling, in the carpet, around the lobby and especially in the bust of President Abraham Lincoln over the fireplace in the lobby. (Hill said the origin of the theater’s name is a mystery, but it doesn’t seem to have been named after the former president.)

Hill scored a big win when she first started in luring Arena Stage productions to the Lincoln Theatre. A pre-eminent company in the area, Arena Stage is overhauling its own aging space at Sixth Street and Maine Avenue Southwest over a two-year period, according to Director of Communications Chad Bauman. The group relies on two venues in the interim; the other is in Crystal City.

Bauman said Lincoln Theatre was one of 48 options Arena Stage considered inside the District. It was ultimately chosen for its expansive space and technical features. Bauman said that even some characteristics of the theater that seemed to be negatives at the beginning have turned into positives, while other negatives have been neutralized.

“We thought that it was going to be a problem if we put a one-person play on in the Lincoln because it is such a large hall,— he said, but added that putting “a personality like Carrie Fisher— in there proved that untrue.

Another problem was the lack of parking, but Bauman said Arena Stage has provided valet parking and encourages patrons to use the Metro directly across the street.

Arena Stage is renting the space for a six-show run. It’s currently near the end of its staging of the fourth show, “Looped.—

In the future, Hill said she wants to continue to attract top-quality theater while providing a space for outstanding community productions. She sees her job as diversifying the schedule.

“In the past as a community-based theater, we had a lot of local grass-roots presentations, so there were uneven performances and uneven audiences,— she said. “We’re now looking to follow a model of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, to be a hybrid community-commercial space.—

She has reached out to a wide array of entertainers in hopes of attracting a large and diverse audience. She said the Venezuelan embassy has used the space to offer a master workshop for children, but the space has also hosted the Washington Ballet, spoken-word performances, opera and cinema. She is especially proud of the national performers who have come. For example, comic Martin Lawrence brought his Starz series, “First Amendment Stand-Up,— to the Lincoln.

“Right now my vision is that the theater is at the cultural crossroads of D.C. In a world-class city — a world-class international city — the Lincoln is a perfect place for those worlds to meet and have a cultural exchange,— she said.