The Apollo Theater and How It Shaped American Entertainment: New Exhibit at Museum of the City of New York

Apollo Theater by AlejandraPT, on Flickr

Since its inception as a black performance space in 1934, the Apollo Theater in Harlem has been a home to black performers through the years; it eventually became so well-known that it became a shrine to performers of all colors.

In its very early years--before 1934--the theater was a segregated burlesque hall, but the demise of burlesque gave birth to a new type of entertainment that was to have a profound effect on American culture. Nearly all forms of entertainment--comedy, dance, swing, jazz, rock 'n' roll, soul, hip hop, and more--were welcomed on the Apollo stage.

Some of the best-known names in entertainment launched and advanced their careers there--dancers Charles "Cholly" Atkins, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson; band leaders Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington; comedians Redd Foxx and Jackie "Moms" Mabley; and musicians ranging from Louis Armstrong, James Brown, and Lionel Hampton to Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Nancy Wilson, and the Jackson Five.

The Apollo showcased every big name African American performer, and white performers came to study the magic. Milton Berle was just one of the artists who came regularly to sit and listen at the Apollo to figure out how to transform the jokes to use for a white audience downtown. Musicians like Elvis Presley and John Lennon arrived in New York with the Apollo at the top of their must-see New York destinations.

The history of the Apollo is documented in a lively and engaging exhibit at the Museum of the City Of New York that was organized for the 75th anniversary of the theater's opening as a performance space for black performers by the National Museum of African American History and Culture in collaboration with the Apollo Theater Foundation.

At a public program about the exhibit held at the museum last week, a panel of speakers brought to life stories of the Apollo. Opening remarks were provided by Robert G. O'Meally, the Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. O'Meally stressed that the atmosphere at the Apollo was special because there was such a strong sense of community. In clips that he played of some of the performances, there was a consistent sense of audience involvement with shouts of pleasure and encouragement as the performers went on.

The panel was moderated with warmth and humor by Kinshasha Holman Conwill of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Zita Allen, former dance critic for Dance Magazine, talked of the chorus girls who performed at the Apollo, and the nonstop schedule they followed. Mel Watkins, author of Stepin Fetchit: The Life & Times of Lincoln Perry, gave a great overview of the comedians at the Apollo, telling one particularly notable anecdote about Bill Cosby appearing for a less-than-impressive-sized crowd long before he was known as a world-class comic.

Greg Tate, editor of Everything but the Burden: What White People are Taking from Black Culture, talked of James Brown, who considered the Apollo an incubator for developing his music, and who was known for precision and the amazing discipline under which his band members played. Herb Boyd, author of Baldwin's Harlem: a Biography of James Baldwin, talked of the Apollo's intersection with white and black culture and the role the theater played in helping raise money for civil rights.

The post-burlesque format of the theater was established by Leo Brecher and Frank Schiffman, two businessmen who had come to control most of the theaters in Harlem. Brecher was the silent partner, and Schiffman was loved by some and hated by others, but together, they built a business that dominated the black entertainment scene.

Long before there was television's American Idol, there was Amateur Night at the Apollo, and aspiring performers knew that the reward for four first-place wins was a one-week professional engagement at the theater. During the first 20 years, an estimated fifteen thousand performers came and tried their luck with the Apollo audiences. Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, Gladys Knight, Wilson Picket, James Brown, and Billy Kenny of the Ink Spots are just a few of the performers who broke through on amateur night.

One of the film clips shown at the public program was particularly remarkable, providing the audience with one of those "I'll never forget this" moments. If you watch this clip, you will understand the magic that emanated from the Apollo for more than 40 years. On YouTube the clip is identified as from the film, "Stormy Weather" (1943) and featuring Cab Calloway and his orchestra performing "Jumpin' Jive." the Nicholas Brothers. Stay with the clip until about 1:45 into it to see some remarkable dancing. Then continue until the end--the last minute is awesome.

"Ain't Nothing like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment" is the title of the exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York that is well worth the time of anyone passing through New York between now and May 1.

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