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The Howard Theatre opened in 1910 and served as a showcase for African American artists for more than 70 years. Billed as the "Theater for the People," its live music, plays, vaudeville, movies, and talent contests drew audiences and performers from the city and throughout the United States. It was also home of two theatrical troupes: the Lafayette Players and the Howard University Players. The theater had a seating capacity of more than 1,200 in three levels: orchestra, balcony, and eight proscenium boxes.

The theater was founded and owned by the white-owned National Amusement Company. Andrew Thomas served as manager of the theater during its early years. Sherman Dudley, an actor, producer, and entrepreneur, leased and ran the theater beginning in 1922. Abe Lichtman, a white owner of a chain of movie houses patronized by African Americans, took over the theater in 1926.

In 1931 Duke Ellington and his band appeared at the Howard, helping to turn the theater into the place for entertainment. Shep Allen, the new manager, was responsible for the theater's rebirth. He introduced an amateur contest in the 1930s that helped to launch the careers of Billy Eckstine and Ella Fitzgerald. Pearl Bailey debuted at the Howard in the 1940s. During the 1950s and 1960s, the top acts in rock ‘n' roll and rhythm and blues played there.

By the late 1960s, due in part to racial desegregation and the impact of the riots that followed the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, the theater had difficulty attracting patrons. It closed in 1970. The Howard Theatre Foundation was organized in 1973 to revive the theater; it succeeded in listing the theater in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. The next year the theater reopened with Redd Foxx and Melba Moore as two of the featured acts. In this period it also hosted go-go (DC's contribution to popular music), including internationally known Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers. When it closed again in the early 1980s the Howard was the oldest theater in the country featuring black artists.

The rehabilitation of the Howard Theatre by Howard Theatre Restoration, Inc., began in 2010, the year of the Howard's 100th anniversary. The theater reopens as a combination performing and events space in April 2012 with plans for a future museum and educational center.

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