D.C. May Lose One of the Last Remnants of Black Broadway

Elahe Izadi / DCentric

Cynthia Robbins, Lincoln Theatre board member, makes an appeal for funding to save the theater.

When the Lincoln Theatre opened in 1922 on U Street, it was one of the jewels of “Black Broadway.” But with money running out, the historical landmark is at risk of closing.

“They say, ‘Before Harlem, there was U Street,’” said Rahim Muhammad, who grew up in the area. “So to me, the Lincoln is more important than the Apollo.”

During a Thursday afternoon press conference in front of Lincoln Theatre, board members blasted Mayor Vincent Gray for not answering their calls to hold a meeting to discuss saving the theater. Gray has said the theater’s business model is “not sustainable” and that the city couldn’t “pour money” in it.

Without a $500,000 boost, board members said the theater could close by the end of the year.

The possible closure of the Lincoln Theatre may be a sign of bad economic times. But some say the theater, on a now totally-gentrified corridor, holds a special place in D.C.’s black history and it should be preserved.

Rick Lee, a Lincoln Theatre Board member, criticized the city for giving money to other theaters such as Ford and Arena Stage, and yet failing to allocate anything to the Lincoln Theatre in Fiscal 2012, which begins Oct. 1. They have received $250,000 in past years.

“Even though the mayor is black, I almost feel like it’s a racial thing because I don’t see why you would have this theater, as beautiful as it is with all of this potential, and nickel and dime it,” Lee said. “I’m offended.”

Elahe Izadi / DCentric

The Lincoln Theatre was supposed to celebrate its 90th anniversary next year. It may close before that due to lack of funding.

The demographics of the area have changed since the theater’s heyday — most nearby residents are white — but board members don’t view that as a problem.

“[The theater] has evolved. We have diversified our programming,” said Lee, who has also owned Lee’s Flower and Card Shop on 11th and U for more than five decades. “We don’t have a problem with the neighborhood changing. It was an African American institution and I still think it should be preserved as a monument to the African American struggle.”

The theater does host a variety of shows. For instance, an Indian dance company has a performance scheduled next week. But the theater does need to attract more programming to survive, some critics say.

Muhammad, who has also produced a number of shows at the Lincoln Theatre, said the black community should do more to support the institution.

“I think all the real cultural history of the greater U Street area is being lost, and I think especially the African American community has abandoned U Street,” Muhammad said. “There are large African American organizations that could help the Lincoln.”

Muhammad questioned why big groups, such as BET and the Urban League, don’t host galas and events at the Lincoln Theatre rather than at venues downtown.

DCentric has a call into the mayor’s office and will update this post once we have a response.



  • http://twitter.com/DCDan DC Dan

    “The possible closure of the Lincoln Theatre may be a sign of bad economic times. But some say the theater, on a now totally-gentrified corridor, holds a special place in D.C.’s black history and it should be preserved.”

    This sentence is absolutely baiting and biased. “totally-gentrified corridor” = “white people” 

    Perhaps if the sentence read in a “revitalized corridor, holds a special place in D.C.’s history” This post could have been about saving a treasured theater and preserving culture and art in D.C. rather than another post about racial divisions in the city.


  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_P7XW7N5RYOJI33HHPL65GSPE5Q K

    Re: “it’s a racial thing”

    Oh come on. This is a gorgeous, renovated theater right in the middle of the most exciting entertainment area in DC and the people that run it have never been able to figure out how to put on shows that people want to see. I’ve been living blocks from the Lincoln for a decade and the programming has been poor for as long as I’ve been here. The city should not have to bail out an institution that, with better management, would be successful and profitable.

    I’m a big fan of this blog, but anyone saying the Lincoln going under is because of race must be called out. That’s just BS. And lazy. There are plenty of examples of real bigotry and it’s human cost in this city. There’s no need to invent new ones.

  • http://notionscapital.com Mike Licht

    The solution for the Lincoln Theatre’s revenue problem was solved a while back — in 1927. That’s when new owner Abe Lichtman, employer of most of DC’s African American theater managers, installed an underground ballroom and 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. 

    The dual revenue stream allowed the Lincoln to prosper for decades. The District chose to ignore this history and do a superficial rehab. Sadly, a cheap fix usually costs more in the long run.

     Details at http://bit.ly/o1A3KK

  • http://notionscapital.com Mike Licht
  • esthermiriam

    From all appearances, the Lincoln needs a new board and a strategic plan.  The building is a treasure, but as a theater operation, far from it.

    There are many folks in this city able and probably willing to  consult and help: those who worked with Source Theater, e.g., those at Kennedy Center who offer such serives nationally, the newly-formed Washington Theatre Alliance (formerly Helen Hayes), etc.andsoforth….

    Not to mention the several local theaters who need a home, and have a base  of supporters.

    Whining that the failure pending has nothing to do with those responsible for the Lincoln, and, worse, attempting to make a racial issue out of the situation, is a great shame.

  • Anonymous

    I must say that I have to agree with your post.  I’m 57, I grew up in Columbia Heights, Logan Circle and Shaw.  I’ve lived in the same zip code my entire life and I now own a home in Columbia Heights.  I’ve seen the Lincoln sit dark and vacant for many, many evenings.  I walk past there on my way to a restaurant or just out walking with friends and I wonder why isn’t there some play, concert, recital, something going on at the Lincoln.  My thought was that it was a real lack of managment.  How can you have a venue like that and not have it filled almost every night of the year?  I understand that there are venues like the 9:30 Club and the Black Cat near by but they don’t hold as many seats nor are they as beautiful and comfortable as the Lincoln Theatre.  I think if the theatre is dark most evenings its because the management is lazy and stupid.  They’re just not doing their job.  Because I’m sure there must be hundreds of groups (community and professional) that would be willing to pay to have their performance at the Lincoln.