Lincoln Theater Could Close Next Week

Twitter lit up Wed. afternoon when Ward 1 Council Member Jim Graham tweeted:

“I want to keep Lincoln Theater open. But no $ for them in fy12 budget. Looks bleak and it may close. Emergency bd mtg 2nite at Linc @ 6”

Though at 8:30pm he also tweeted:

“We had a good board mtg and are planning an annoucenment on the financial situation and future theatre ops tmrw, 1 pm at the Lincoln”

I think the Lincoln Theater located at 1215 U Street NW, is one of the most striking/classic buildings on U Street. I love it. However, besides one promo concert in Nov. ’07, I have never actually attended an event there. I’m wondering how many others have attended an event at the Lincoln Theater?

Either way, it’s clearly an amazing property with a great history – so what do you think the city should do with it?

Back in Apr. ’08 Washington Business Journal reported on plans to:

“seek developers interested in turning a 40-spot surface parking lot behind the Lincoln into either housing, offices or hotel space. Revenue from the project will go to maintaining and operating the Lincoln.”

53 Comment

  • They should sell the building with a deed that requires it to retain certain historical elements, and then let some smart and creative people make it work. There is no reason at all that the Lincoln shouldn’t be packing in crowds for music and/or theater. It’s a great destination for a night out.

  • Put the Lincoln Theater under new management with a new board that will actually do programming that people want to see. They only have 3 shows/events programmed for the entire month of October! What about the other 28 days? Nothing. Nada. No revenue. Failure. Please don’t waste more tax dollars on a failing business model. Hopefully the Lincoln reinvents itself and thrives again.

  • I’d love to know who their board is and how they got their positions. My guess would be lots of friends of politicians & other campaign [or “not a bribe”] contributors. I agree with others – privatize it, new board, new management, make it viable or get rid of it. No need for it to suck tax $$.

  • It is a joke that we are paying taxes to fund a building on prime real estate that offers very little value to the community.

    When considering the worst things to happen to this city, Jim Graham is right up there with the crack epidemic.

    • Agreed. He needs to go.

      • Hey Jim Graham turned down the cash “offer of goodwill” from his aide although didn’t report it. I guess that makes him somehow ethically better than the other clowns on the council–at least he thinks so.

  • Truth be told most nay sayers who would like the Lincoln to closs are not even from washington or ever tried to attend or supported the Lincoln Theater.

    • treu. but i bet that even those people place making it work higher than wanting it closed. but it’s not working. its bleeding money. and last i checked you don’t need to be native or have gone there to be forced to pay taxes.

      what would you do?

  • Yeah…five messages before the “native Washingtonian” canard was thrown into this conversation….sigh…

    Two sitting councilmembers (Grahmstander and VO) are on the board of the theatre. They both seem to do pretty damn well with fundraising for their campaigns and over-loaded constituent services funds, why can’t they and the other board members pound the pavement and put some of that fundraising effort behind the theatre?

    As for the theatre itself, unfortunately it is not well managed at all. It’s absolutely criminal that there aren’t more shows programmed there than what are. With 9:30 and Black Cat both close by, you certainly can’t go after too much of those audiences, but there are TONS of other options/opportunities, you just need to WORK for it.

  • I’m sure many people in the neighborhood would love to attend events at the Lincoln Theater, but how can they do that if it’s almost never open? I’ve been there a few times over the years (film fest, etc) and am always stunned at what a fantastic, amazing old theater it is and how tragic it is that it’s just so underutilized. Especially since it requires seemingly regular infusions of money from the city.

    New management should, as others have suggested, be brought in to think of ways of getting more bodies into the building. Hordes of people walk by the theater every single day….how difficult would it be to stage events that would lure some of them in? And make it a mix of programming that appeals to both new folks that live in the neighborhood now and those who lived there in the past and who have strong ties to the theater.

  • How can something close if it really isn’t open to begin with… Abolish the inept U Street Theater Foundation and bring in a viable operator (say IMP, Landmark, etc.) and watch this space thrive.

  • Put a new board in place! The current one has always been terrible. They won’t allow the theater to be activated by other uses during the week. There should be movies, high school plays, business conferences, etc. Event space in DC goes for a premium- no reason it wouldn’t rent here in such a beautiful space. I remember when the Board didn’t want the DC gay film festival to use the Lincoln due to thinly veiled homophobia.

    Given its location, it could be bustling 5 nights a week.

  • Get ready for the same situation with the Howard Theater. Why people think having nonprofit boards operate venues like this is beyond me.

    • was there interest for the howard in the private sector?

      • are you kidding? the land it sits on is worth millions.

        • yes, i’m sure the land is valuable.thats not what i asked. was there private interest n developing the howard theater? some of us aren’t up on those things. you clearly are. since you took my sincere question as a joke, would you mind sharing who was interested?

        • I wasn’t taking your question as a joke. And, I don’t know who would be interested, because it never went out to bid. I’m just saying that if the city put the Howard Theater out to bid, instead of fixing it up and operating it as a quasi-nonprofit saddled with all sorts of political baggage, it might actually thrive again. As it now stands I give it about 1% chance of living up to its potential considering its going to be operated exactly the same way the Lincoln theater is i.e. a couple of times a year hold some high-profile event that makes the councilmembers look good and otherwise keep it dark. It’s very frustrating.

          • Thankfully, you’re wrong about the Howard Theater.

            It’s managed by the private, for-profit company who runs The Blue Note and BB King night clubs, and has a record label.

            It’s a smaller cabaret with flexible space and seating, rather than a fixed, immovable theater seats. It also has state of the art sound and stage gear.

            And, it has a liquor license and restaurant so it can host all types of corporate events and meetings, and make some cash flow.

            If you’re offering 99:1 odds, let me know where I can place a bet.

  • The Problem is that the management/board or whoever is calling the shots over there seem to think it’s their little theater for their own limited community. Whenever I go by the Theater it seems like events are targeting the African American and/or “lower income” community – Howard Univeristy event, local school graduation, African American commedy/singer.

    There’s no problem with that, unless you’re not being profitable, or if your asking the larger DC community to give you half a million $/year or more.

    What they need to do is try to attract events that are for everybody. U street and DC are now multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and income diverse. The board seems to think this is their little private theater to promote their slice of the community, while doing it on the DC taxpayers dime.

    I am bring up race and class not because I want to throw bombs, but I honestly think the myopic view of the board is what it killing this place.

    • the problem isn’t the type of programming. it’s the quantity.

    • I’m essentially cross-posting what I said at DCist, but I saw Artie Lange play a show there in November 2008, and another commenter mentioned Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show playing there, so it’s not like they did absolutely nothing to try to attract events for “everybody.” Having seen how piss-poor the sightlines were from the balcony first-hand (every time there was some sort of business downstage, everyone in the balcony had to stand up to see it), it’s not entirely surprising that they weren’t able to lure acts away from the Warner or Constitution Hall.

      • i’ve been there when the audience was 90% black and other times when the audience was 90% white.

      • anonymouse_dianne

        Carrie Fisher was there when Arena Stage was closed for renovations and used the Lincoln for a number of performances. Crowns as well. It’s a terrific old theater, good acoustics and visuals. Why can’t they make arrangements with other theater groups? I assume Arena reached out to them and not the other way around.

    • you might want to actually look at what’s scheduled. The issue isn’t that it’s narrowly focused – it’s that there isn’t anything on the calendar at all! There are only 4 events on the calendar right now: 2 Indian dance performances, a light rock band, and a “celebration of Arabic culture.”

  • Lease it out to someone who actually knows how to make money with this sort of venue. It’s not like the city has more beautiful old performance spaces than it needs.

  • Have IMP Productions take it over.

  • To the most viable bidder — not necessarily the highest bidder. The fact is that Mayor Kelly’s administration bungled this project in the early ’90s and the city has plowed millions into the Lincoln and otherwise just looked the other way ever since — up until now (hopefully). DC should essentially give away the theater to a commercial operator that can animate the space on a daily basis and, more importantly, cover the massive utility costs (the true achilles heal for a theater like this) which make the building so difficult to successfully manage. The payoff for the city is whatever sales taxes the facility generates, the end of endless DC gov’t subsidies and the added benefit to neighboring restaurants/bars/stores (and their additional sales taxes) from the thousands of additional patrons drawn to the Lincoln. As much as I hate to say it, look at MoCo and what they did w/ both the Filmore and the AFI Silver — both places have absurdly low rents BUT both places helped legitimize and enliven what was formerly a crap hole of a neighborhood.

    • It seems to me there’s a parallel with the city’s ownership of the United Medical Center. Both serve a need and both (?) serve political interests, but aren’t necessarily well managed and act as a drain on the city finances. Ideally a private enterprise could take them over, but efforts in this vein have not worked out.

  • What a shame. The Lincoln sits largely unused and now the board claims it will shut down because it doesn’t generate enough revenue? Seriously, wtf is going on with this white elephant?

    Arts organizations frequently need a subsidy, whether provided through private fundraising or by public grant. However, the Lincoln, if I understand its operations correctly (i.e., its operating budget comes directly from the city) has no incentive actually to program anything. Instead of hustling to bring in shows that people will attend, the board sits around collecting its city-provided payroll and then complains when it runs out of money.

    If DC wants to subsidize arts organizations, it should do so through grants that require a certain level of programming. Perhaps the city could lease the Lincoln to a private and/or non-profit company for a subsidized rate, as well. But the notion that a municipality like DC can and/or should be directly running a theatre is absurd.

  • The small, narrow wings of the stage, no backstage and the flights of stairs to the dressing rooms make it hard to pull off a performance.

  • It’s their horrible management that is the blame, I rented the theater for an event a few years ago and they were by far the most un-organized and uncooperative group of people that I have ever worked with…

  • To answer a question in the article, I have been to two events at the Lincoln:

    In 2008, I went to a step show held there, unofficially for the AKA Centennial Celebration.

    in 1997, my high school graduation was held there.

  • Stop calling it a bribe…

  • I have booked events at the Lincoln before and it is definitely a management issue which has dissuaded me from booking really anything else there. Old guard, disorganized, no creative ideas. It’s a beautiful space granted, with limited backstage and technical capabilities, but absolutely has potential is very sad to me the city couldn’t recognize the REAL problems with the space.

  • Honestly, even when I’m on U street, I forget the theater is there at all, just because I never hear about events there and I don’t know any friends who’ve gone.

    Dump the management, replace with competent entertainment businesspeople. It’s such a waste that this historic, prime-located venue is so unpopular and, sadly, culturally irrelavent these days.

  • The Lincoln hardly ever has events scheduled, people go to the Warner or elsewhere. Sad and outdated. Hope they can preserve the exterior and turn it into retail/office space.

  • I live in the neighborhood and have performed at the Lincoln. Great theater with issues as people have pointed out — stage has little wings and is not deep enough. You can definitely do shows etc there though.

    The problem is definitely the management and lack of programming.

    No more city money for operating budget — enter into a long term lease with a private organization. There is no reason it sits idle for the vast majority of time.

  • Bad booking from the start doomed it.

  • They should try to bring in Michael Kaiser of the Kennedy Center as a consultant- Considering that his specialty is turning around struggling nonprofit arts organizations…

  • Privatize the thing and turn it into real theater. When there are no good acts, put up a giant movie screen and show classics for 8$ bucks a ticket and sell beer. It will be turning a profit in no time.

    I’ve lived around the corner from the Lincoln for years, and rare are the times I’ve been interested in a show there. They seem to intentionally book acts that appeal to tiny audiences. Every once in a while there was a comic or a jazz show that seemed worthwhile and I’ve gone, and its a great place. But I’m not shelling out $35 to go see an indonesian cultural display or an off-off-off-off-off-off-off-off-off-off broadway production of the Wiz, and it seems few others will either.

  • Saw a great comedy show there a few years back and some indie stuff during a film festival. The management failed cause the building, history and location sell itself. There is no reason they need another govt handout.

  • Anyone ever been to Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse? They should make Lincoln Theater into that type of place. There’s currently nothing like it in DC.

    You’re Welcome.

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