Farewell to H Street Life

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A young painter offers assistance to artist Cherif Mamadou at the H Street Festival. Photo: Elise Bernard.

The weather’s begun to feel like fall in recent weeks, a time of transition and change. Speaking of change, this is my last H Street Life column after nearly a decade. Fear not, I’ll likely still make the occasional guest appearance in the Hill Rag, but as I looked back on those past articles I thought this might present the perfect opportunity to also look back at a bit of the H Street corridor’s history.

The H Street Festival: From Humble Beginnings to the District’s Largest Neighborhood Festival
Hurricane worries forced the postponement of this year’s H Street Festival (http://www.hstreetfestival.org), originally slated for mid-September. The delay gave me time to investigate the history of the celebration. 1985 saw the first festival, born of a desire to highlight the businesses along a street still scarred by the 1968 riots. A morning parade from Hechinger Mall to Third Street NE opened the early festivals. The crowds were considerably smaller in those days (perhaps 500 attendees in 1987). According to Anwar Saleem, of H Street Main Street, festival vending was more free-wheeling too, with folks setting up tables to sell what and where they wished. There were clowns, balloons, pony rides, a moonbounce, music, food, games, and a general sense of good cheer and hope for the future. From its inception the festival was conceived of as an annual event, but fundraising difficulties often led to gaps between festivals. Things stabilized by 2005 and it became a truly annual event.

By 2009 attendance had grown rapidly with an estimated 15,000 people turning out for the festivities. The next year it was 30,000, then 50,000, with attendance topping the 100,000 mark in 2013. These days the festival routinely draws around 150,000 people eager to experience what the H Street NE corridor has to offer.

The festival is a big production, and big business. H Street Main Street, which coordinates the event, commissioned Jon Stover & Associates to conduct an economic impact study of the 2017 festival. They found that the festival “generated $6.1 million more direct sales revenue along the H Street corridor” than would otherwise have been expected. The festival also added nearly $729,000 in fees and taxes to District coffers. The average person spent $63 at the festival (“$23 on food and non-alcoholic beverages, $20 on alcohol, $13 shopping, and $7 on other expenses”). About 80% of attendees came from outside the immediate H Street NE area, with 42% traveling in from outside the District. Those numbers are significant considering that those who pay their first visit during the festival may return for dining, drinks, music, theater, shopping, or even an apartment tour.

This year’s rescheduled festival will take place Oct. 13 (12–7 P.M.). As in recent years it will stretch from 4th to 14th Street NE. Harkening back to the festival’s roots, local marching bands will compete to show off their musical chops as they parade down the festival route. Head to Artist’s Alley for creative works from artists and craftsman. Don’t miss the live paint battle. The main stage at 8th and H Street NE will go old school with top local performers of go-go, R&B, rock, gospel, and more genres that ruled the District back in the day.

Food options abound including typical festival fare like funnels cakes, local restaurants and bars, and plenty of food trucks. Take a break at one of the popular beer or spirit gardens. Kids Zone will once again include a climbing wall, plus a firemen’s slide among its attractions.

The Atlas under construction in 2004. Photo: Elise Bernard

Pulling Back the Curtain on the History of the Atlas
There’s always an H Street NE business celebrating a first, second, or even 10th birthday, but few local spots can boast of having opened 80 years ago. The Atlas Performing Arts Center (1333 H St. NE, http://www.atlasarts.org), however, can do just that. The Atlas Theater debuted Aug. 31, 1938 as the second cinema owned by District-based K-B Theaters, which had previously purchased the nearby Princess Theater at 1119 H St. NE.

The featured attraction for the grand opening was 1938’s “Love Finds Andy Hardy.” Starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Children would be admitted for 15¢, and adults for 25¢. An ad in the paper on opening day described the new theater as “truly modern from every standpoint…healthfully air conditioned, beautifully decorated, and [with] the latest and best motion picture projection and sound equipment.” It also boasted of a soundproof nursery from which mothers and babies might enjoy the show without disturbing other audience members.

The Atlas primarily focused on film, but one could find live performances there as well. Hollywood leading man Edmund Lowe, who stole hearts in both silent films and the talkies, thrilled admirers during a four-day engagement at the Atlas in early 1940. Many of the live stage bills took the form of variety shows featuring musical performances, comedy routines, and a wide range of novelty acts such as the Novello Brothers in 1939 with what the Washington Post called “their acro-violin speciality and bird pantomime.” Earlier that year the Atlas hosted a concert by big screen cowboy Tex Ritter and his Texas Tornadoes. The live performances mostly tapered off prior to the end of World War II.

In 1951 a director and producer from New York arrived with a dream to convert the Atlas into a full-time home for live theater. Leasing the building from K-B Theaters he made plans to launch the Atlas’ second career in early August of 1951 with productions of Jean-Paul Sartre’s and Anton Chekov’s works. But opening night saw the theater turning away disappointed crowds following a last minute cancelation after the building failed inspection for use as a live theater because it lacked a fire curtain for the stage and a sprinkler system. These factors apparently did not pose an obstacle for a moviehouse, and the Atlas was soon back to the familiar thrills of the big screen.

The old projector illuminated the screen for the last time in late summer of 1976. An Aug. 8 advertisement list showings of “Godzilla vs. Megalon” and “Son of the Blob.” Soon after, financially unsustainable, the theater was shuttered. The Atlas sat mostly vacant and unused for decades. In 1985 Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6A discussed a liquor license application for an Atlas Grocery Store at the site. Six years later, in 1991 the ANC heard from a group seeking to open an outpatient drug treatment center serving 150 patients. A Washington Post ANC news round-up from the time recorded that the Commission “voted to support the concept of the proposal but not the location.”

In 2000 interest once again intensified in bringing new life to the long-shuttered cinema. Proponents of converting the space to a live performance theater and arts space made their case, as did those who favored installing a roller rink or bowling alley. Ultimately the live theater proposal carried the day, sowing the seed that would eventually grow into the Atlas we know and love today. The completed Atlas Performing Arts Center opened in 2006 with four performance spaces, and attached dance studios that are home to Joy of Motion (https://www.joyofmotion.org). The Atlas offers a variety of arts-related entertainment year-round, and hosts the INTERSECTIONS Festival that takes place each spring.

 

For more on what’s abuzz on, and around, H Street NE, you can visit my blog athttp://frozentropics.blogspot.com/http://frozentropics.blogspot.com. You can send me tips or questions at elise.bernard@gmail.com.