New Lincoln Theatre Plan — From 1927

New Lincoln Theatre Plan -- from 1927
Debutantes and escorts at Lincoln Colonnade, 1947 (Scurlock Studios, Smithsonian Archives)

The District of Columbia Government is soliciting proposals to develop plots of land behind the Lincoln Theatre on U Street, NW, to provide an additional revenue stream for the theater, which operates at a loss and requires regular infusions of government funds.

If DC government wants to fix responsibility for the Lincoln Theatre’s financial state, it only needs a mirror. After a deal with a private developer fell through, DC did the theater rehab itself, a shoddy job that required later repair.  The city gets to use the theater for free, reducing the number of paying dates and making it difficult to schedule paying customers. Naturally, DC blames the nonprofit that runs the place instead of admitting its own culpability.

The Solicitation for Offers document requires “a mix of uses that complement and financially support the long term operations and ongoing programming of the Lincoln Theatre” and a “flexible event space between 7,500 to 10,000 square feet” with a commercial kitchen to be managed with input from theater management. The development “mix” might include “office, boutique hotel and residential uses” with “[r]esidential uses . . . the least preferred” yet most of the document consists of specs for housing. Despite a few phrases about “adjacency issues with loading and services of the Lincoln’s back of house,” plans and diagrams show little understanding of actual theater load-in/load-out needs.

The solution for the Lincoln Theatre’s revenue problem was solved some time ago — in 1927. That is when new owner Abe Lichtman, employer of most of DC’s African American theater managers, put a public ballroom underground, under and behind the theater. This provided the Lincoln with a steady second income stream. This hall, the “Lincoln Colonnade,” was arguably more important to Washington’s African American community than the theater proper, and most of the stars said to have “packed the theater’s 1,200 seats” actually played for dancers in the Colonnade.

Cab Calloway at the Lincoln Colonnade

 As Bill Brower puts it:

In the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, the Lincoln Colonnade was awhirl with the social life of Washington’s black middle-class who danced and were entertained by the elite swing bands, instrumental stylists and singers. Ellington, of course, was a favorite, but so were bandleaders Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Tiny Bradshaw, Teddy Wilson, Roy Eldridge, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmie Lunceford, Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine. The occasions were debutante ball and the annual social extravaganzas of the city’s connected African-Americans. Some of them like the annual President’s Birthday Ball even attracted powerful whites.

Saxophonist George Botts grew up in Washington. He told W. Royal Stokes:

I’ve read in the paper where people talk about the groups that played at the Lincoln Theater. It wasn’t at the Lincoln theater, it was the Lincoln Colonnade, which is underneath the Lincoln Theater! It was a beautiful dance hall that was under the Lincoln, where all those people, Charlie Parker and all them, came, and they had dances in there every weekend. It’s still there but it’s bricked up [actually filled in with rubble -ml]. It was a beautiful place, man. When you came in, it was a door right beside the Lincoln Theater, and you went in and you went down, down, down . . . . And you went through that tunnel, they had a cloakroom, and then you came into the dancehall. The reason it had the name Colonnade was it had a balcony with columns all the way around it except for where the band sat.

They had all these social clubs back then that gave dances in the Lincoln Colonnade, formal dances a lot of times . . . . During the Roosevelt administration the Lincoln Colonnade used to be the place where, when the president was doing the March of Dimes thing . . . that’s where he would come, to the Lincoln colonnade, because that’s where black people had their March of Dimes celebration. And sometimes they would have Ellington’s band or someone like that playing there.

Dance at the Lincoln Colonnade, 1940s

Dance at the Lincoln Colonnade, 1940s, Scurlock Studios, Smithsonian Archives

The Colonnade wasn’t just for the elite. Capitol Hill resident Geraldine E. Matthews told interviewer Marie Mingo that when she went to Cardozo High School:

And, then, it was what they call the Lincoln Colonnade. And they would have bands there. And they started, they would have dances for the school children and it would last ’til 9:00. That would be on Mondays, sometime on Mondays . . . . They would have a lot of times Big Bands.

(Geraldine E. Matthews, interviewed by Marie Mingo, November 13, 2002. Transcribed by Betsy Barnett, Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project.)

When the District of Columbia Government took over the Lincoln Theatre rehabilitation project, I was a DC employee. I asked about the Colonnade, which had been filled in with rubble some decades ago. I was told the area under the theater was to be used for utilities equipment installation, and there were no plans for the area under the rear lot. I noted that most successful historic theater restorations would go under if they couldn’t rent out their imposing lobbies for weddings and corporate parties, and the Lincoln doesn’t have much of a lobby. I strongly suggested considering an underground facility like the Colonnade under the back lot, and recommended consulting the League of Historic American Theatres (then located in Washington) about this issue. I was met with a chorus of shrugs.

So now you understand why I am posting 900 words on the topic. Please forgive this uncharacteristic loquaciousness.


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2 Responses to “New Lincoln Theatre Plan — From 1927”

  1. Sandra Butler-Truesdale Says:

    Thank you. This is some great information

  2. Isaak Beekman Says:

    The ability of bureaucrats to completely fail their mission in the service of politics has always fascinated me. Good post.

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