The History of the Lincoln Theatre in Washington D.C.

By Julia Carey

Julia Carey has interned at I.M.P Productions, Red Light Management, Atlantic Records, and Superfly. Julia has a B.A. from University of Maryland in Communication and History, and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Music Business from Berklee College of Music. Find Julia on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram.

Located at 1215 U Street right next to Ben’s Chili Bowl, the Lincoln Theatre has hosted performers from Duke Ellington to Hozier. This beautiful, 1,225-person venue is close to reaching its 100-year anniversary.  Let’s take a look at the Theatre’s journey to becoming one of DC’s iconic cultural landmarks.

Although D.C. outlawed Jim Crow laws in 1917, segregation was still prevalent. Restrictions on housing led to a divided city, restricting housing and services to non-whites in certain neighborhoods like U-Street. This area became known as Black Broadway, an area where Black entertainment and culture flourished in the city. The Lincoln Theatre was built in 1922 in this locale. It was originally home to vaudeville acts and silent films. In 1927, it became a beautiful cinema venue with a ballroom downstairs, called the Lincoln Colonnade. President Franklin D. Roosevelt celebrated many birthdays in that space. 

D.C. natives Duke Ellington and Pearl Bailey frequented Lincoln Theatre along with Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn, and Lionnel Hampton. The 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were a triumphant time for the venue as it was a place for performers to break out into entertainment. 

On April 4, 1968, the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, protests and riots filled the streets of D.C. People were outraged and sad, and U Street was hit hard with damage from the demonstrations. Many residents and business owners left the area, leading to a lack of use and attention to Lincoln Theatre, and later the closing of its doors in 1981. 

The theatre in the 80s, prior to restoration

In 1983, developer Jeffrey Cohen bought the property as part of a $200+ million development project in the Shaw neighborhood. The project experienced many delays, but in 1989, Lincoln Theatre Foundation Chairman Delano E. Lewis hosted a ceremony and block party attended by 1,000 people to finally kick off the theatre’s redevelopment.

Unfortunately, Cohen defaulted on the loans and filed for bankruptcy in 1991, bringing the restoration work to a halt. Since the project was largely funded by government loans, the city took control of the property and continued restorations. The refurbishment of the intricate Victorian interior took more time and money than expected. Work continued through 1993 and cost the city $9 million

On February 4, 1994, the Lincoln Theatre officially reopened with a performance of Barry Scott’s play Ain’t Got Long to Stay Here, about the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King. In March 1995, Lincoln Theatre hosted Where Eagles Fly, a play written by local playwright Carole Mumin. The story is about an elderly woman fighting an urban redevelopment project that would destroy her family home. It was also around this time that the theater was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. These performances were great odes to U Street and Shaw area history, as well as a kickoff to the abundance of performances that the Lincoln Theatre would experience. 

Throughout the next decade and a half, the theater hosted a variety of events, including plays, operettas, film fests, comedy shows, and even a few concerts. However, it was far from reaching the financial success of the theater’s heyday. In 2007, the city stepped in with an additional $250,000 in funding to keep the theater from closing. In 2011, it again almost closed due to funding cuts from the city. The D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities took over management and began the search for a new operator. In April 2013, I.M.P., the operator of great venues 9:30 Club and Merriweather Post Pavilion, was selected to operate the Lincoln Theatre. In a statement, founder of I.M.P. Seth Hurwitz said, “It’s an honor to be entrusted with bringing new life to an old theater … Many shows that don’t fit in the 9:30 Club will have a place at Lincoln.” In June 2013, I.M.P. began its ownership.

Since I.M.P. took over, the Lincoln Theatre has hosted plays, comedy shows, concerts, live podcasts, and more. Janelle Monáe, Barenaked Ladies, James Blake, Peter Frampton, Kendrick Lamar, and other iconic artists have graced the Lincoln Theatre’s stage. Trevor Noah filmed his 2015 comedy special Lost in Translation there.  

Today, like many other independently owned venues, the Lincoln Theatre has been closed for months due to COVID-19, and is under threat of closing for good. Audrey Fix Schaefer, who oversees the Anthem, Lincoln Theatre, and Merriweather Post Pavilion told WUSA, “When your rents are so high and you have no revenue and you have no idea when you’re going to have revenue, you can’t make it… These small venues are where the superstars start. Without these small venues, you’re not going to have the next superstar.”

To find out how you can help save the Lincoln Theatre and other independent venues from the financial difficulties brought on by COVID-19, visit our recent article, How to Support Independent Venues and Musicians’ Crews in the Times of COVID-19.

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