Back in the 1940s, when an after party for a “Moms” Mabley show was raided by police at a nightclub owned by D.C.’s “female Al Capone,” Odessa Madre, the attendees weren’t ready to go home, so they kept their decadent queer party going at the Howard Theatre.
At least that’s what Marc Powers, director of marketing for the Howard Theatre, has gathered from accounts from those who knew Jackie “Moms” Mabley, and those who were part of the Howard Theatre community in its heyday.
“Moms Mabley played the Howard Theater,” Powers said. “When that got shut down they were like ‘damn, where are we going to go? Might as well just go back to the Howard!’”
More than 60 years later, the theater will host its first official LGBT event when Brightest Young Things and Capital Pride present WildLife, featuring a queer lineup, including recording artist and New York City personality Amanda Lepore, JD Samson of Le Tigre and MEN, Natty Boom and more. The party is set for Friday, 9 p.m.-3:30 a.m. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Visit dcpride2012.eventbrite.com for more information.
“Now it’s not happening under the cloak of the night,” Powers says about the difference between Mabley’s impromptu “girls party” and Friday’s Pride party. “It’s being advertised in the Blade and City Paper and the Washington Post.”
“This is very much our history as well, here at the Howard,” said John Marble of Brightest Young Things about the lesser-known gay stories that dot the 101-year history of the theater.
The story of the Howard Theatre’s long lost gay party is almost too fantastic. Because the party was unofficial, there was no written record. Powers said it’s an important part of the recently restored theater’s distinguished history. D.C.’s most notorious madam treating her good friend — a top comic who confirmed suspicions she was a lesbian before she died — to a smorgasbord of her favorite things.
It was fitting that the first artist to play the Howard Theatre for its third grand re-opening on April 13 was black lesbian comic Wanda Sykes, echoing Mabley’s last live performance on April 17, 1975 at the second grand re-opening of the theater weeks before her death.
Though Mabley was not closeted, she wasn’t known as a lesbian to most of her fans, as her onstage persona was quite the opposite. But off-stage, Mabley was known as a pioneer, dressing androgynously and appearing in drag in movies like “The Emperor Jones.”
The assumed original location of the party, Madre’s flagship “Jill Joint” — a nickname for an establishment that trafficked in illegal gambling, drugs, liquor and prostitution — the “Club Madre” was located at 2204 14th St., N.W., the site of the new Mova lounge.
“The club offered liquor by the shot, numbers by the book and girls by the hour,” The Washington Post published in a 1980 piece on Madre. “The late comedienne Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley performed there free, spending her days in Washington as Odessa’s guest. The two became like sisters.”
“We’re talking about a three-decade relationship, here,” Powers said of the companionship that Madre and Mabley shared from the 1940s through the 1970s.
Though unrecorded until now, Powers said that it’s important to recover and preserve the gay history of the historic Howard Theatre as well, and the connection with Mabley/Madre as well as Duke Ellington’s writing partner Billy Strayhorn, another notable gay character in Howard’s history.
“We don’t know if Madre was at ‘the Madre’ at the time,” Powers said of the after-party, which Powers described as a “hen party.” “She had rooms, clubs, and restaurants all over the city. …She had moving, rotating circles. But Odessa was the host of the party.”
After the club was shut down, Mabley was not interested in going to bed.
“She always keeps the party going,” Powers said. “She’s notorious for that.”
Powers said, according to accounts, it was Mabley herself who was able to secure the key in the middle of the night.
“She gets the key somehow — maybe from a night manager — and has the party upstairs in the Howard Theatre’s balcony,” Powers said.