Harlem's Apollo Theater Gets Its Own Show

The improbable story of the Apollo Theater in Harlem is the subject of a new museum exhibit in New York City. The show, designed by the Smithsonian, looks at how an all-white burlesque theater became the cultural center of African-American showmanship.

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For 75 years, the Apollo Theater in Harlem has been an important part of New York's cultural tapestry. The world famous Apollo, as they say, has helped propel the careers of so many musicians, we wouldn't have time to list them all. But how about a few? Ella Fitzgerald, Gladys Knight, James Brown. Now the theater itself is in the spotlight with a new museum exhibit tracing its history.

NPR's Robert Smith takes us there.

ROBERT SMITH: It hard for the real life Apollo to live up to the way millions have imagined it from recordings.

Mr. JAMES BROWN (Late Singer): (Singing) You know I feel all right.

SMITH: James Brown.

Mr. BROWN: (Singing) You know I feel all right, children.

SMITH: Live at the Apollo 1962.

Mr. BROWN: (Singing) I feel all right.

SMITH: It wasn't just about the music, it was the spark from the audience. Now, at the Museum of the City of New York, you can experience a little bit of that electricity. Visitors crowd around James Brown's jumpsuit, the letters S-E-X spelled out in rhinestones.

Mr. BROWN: (Singing) If you leave me, I'll go crazy. If you leave me, I'll go crazy.

SMITH: The traveling exhibit is called "Ain't Nothing like the Real Thing." It's designed by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. And it does contain plenty of those real things: Michael Jackson's fedora, Sammy Davis, Jr.'s tap shoes.

One of the curators, Tuliza Fleming, says the Apollo is more than the sum of its musical objects.

Ms. TULIZA FLEMING (Curator, National Museum of African American History and Culture): It's almost sort of a mythical reputation. You know, if you can make it at the Apollo, just like if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Because the audiences, no matter who you are, if you're on top of you game they love you. But if you're not, they'll let you know.

SMITH: It was this creative tension that made the Apollo great. Not just between the audience and the performer, but also between an iconic African-American neighborhood - Harlem - and a white-owned theater. Billy Mitchell, the in-house historian at the Apollo, says at first the legendary Apollo audience wasn't allowed in. It started out as a white's only burlesque house. But in 1934, during the Harlem renaissance, there was clearly a business opportunity.

Mr. BILLY MITCHELL (Tour Director and In-House Historian, Apollo Theater): And the owners of theatre wanted to be one of the first to have a first, quote, "all-colored show" done at the Apollo, 'cause the audience was all white.

SMITH: It did so well that another feature added: Amateur night at the Apollo. All of a sudden, a segregated theatre was inviting the neighborhood of Harlem in, both as performers and as audience judges. Tuliza Fleming says there were plenty of theatres in New York at the time, but amateur night set the Apollo apart.

Ms. FLEMING: I mean, the Apollo was one of the few places in the country - if there was any other place - where you could go as just someone off the street with talent and get on stage and play with the best swing band in the country.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: Ella Fitzgerald was one of the first winners. The way the story goes, she set aside her dance routine at the very last minute to try out singing. Later, of course, she'd be featured on the Apollo's live album of stars.

Ms. ELLA FITZGERALD (Singer): (Singing) All my life, I've been waiting for you...

SMITH: Much of the new exhibit is dedicated to the impact of amateur night at the Apollo. The Jackson 5 wowed the crowd there, Billie Holiday, Gladys Knight and the Pips. When African-American theaters around the country started to close in the late '60s, the Apollo held on, in large part because of the loyalty that performers felt to the place that launched them. Fleming says you can still feel it today.

Ms. FLEMING: Oh, you have to go to amateur night.

SMITH: And so I finished my exhibit tour with a little trip uptown - from the museum on 5th Avenue to 125th Street.

(Soundbite of violins)

SMITH: Underneath the famous Apollo stage is this little room that's just thick with fear. This is where the contestants wait. A group of eight-year-olds are dressed as Michael Jackson and practicing a medley on the violins. The crowds here may be tough, but the kids have been promised.

BOY: They can't boo children.

SMITH: They can't boo children.

BOY: They're not allowed.

SMITH: So, does this take some of the pressure off that they can't boo you.

BOY: Yeah, it really does.

SMITH: Oh, but the adults are fair game. And before she goes on, singer Donel Davis says the pressure's on.

Ms. DONEL DAVIS (Singer): Oh yes, I can feel the history, yeah.

SMITH: She's about to feel something else: how the Apollo audience can turn on you.

Ms. DAVIS: (Singing) But no other man's gonna do...

SMITH: The booing starts in the balcony then the catcalling.

Ms. DAVIS: (Singing) ...saving all my love...

(Soundbite of booing)

SMITH: The man known as the executioner tap dances Davis off the stage. Over the years, it's happened to the best of them, but if the history of the Apollo is any guide, the ones that really want it always come back stronger.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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