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'Showtime at the Apollo'

A Chronicle of Black America's Premiere Entertainment Stage

Cover of the Ted Fox book Showtime at the Apollo: The Story of Harlem's World Famous Theater (Mill Road Enterprises 2003) hide caption

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The landmark Apollo Theatre in New York City's Harlem neighborhood celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. NPR's Tavis Smiley talks with Ted Fox, author of the book Showtime at the Apollo: The Story of Harlem's World Famous Theater, about the history of the theater and the people that performed on its stage.

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From Showtime at the Apollo — The 1930s:

The Apollo opened its doors at 10:00 A.M., and night workers, housewives, and hooky-playing schoolchildren would dig deep for their nickels and dimes and enter a dream world where they were welcome to stay all day if they liked.

Many, especially the kids, would stay all day, packing sandwiches or cold chicken from home, catching three, four, or five shows a day and taking catnaps between performances. It didn't even matter who was playing, for the shows were always basically the same. First a short film, perhaps a Betty Boop cartoon. Next, a newsreel, followed by the feature film. Then a pause. Silence. And at the last the master of ceremonies would announce, to the rising applause and screams from the audience: "Ladies and gentlemen, it's showtime at the Apollo!" Ba-ba-boom, the band would break into the Apollo theme song, "I May Be Wrong (But I Think You're Wonderful)," and the show was rolling. The band would do a number with the chorus, then the MC. would bring on a "sight act" such as a tap dancer, acrobat, or animal act, followed by a singer, the chorus again, a comedy act, and finally the featured attraction or band in the finale.

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The shows, or revues, as they were usually known, loosely revolved around a theme and were given titles such as "Modern Rhythm," "Hill Billy Revue," "Harlem Goes Hollywood," "Ebony Showboat," or "Voodoo Drums." The bill changed every week, and there were usually thirty one performances – four a day, plus an extra show on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Most shows ran sixty to ninety minutes, and performers often complained that by the time they came offstage from one show, the "half" for the next show would already "be in"-in other words, the backstage bell signaling thirty minutes to the next show had already rung…

In the Swing era, bands were an integral part of any Apollo show. Not only were the bands on hand to showcase their own talents and play their hit tunes, but they also played for all the acts on the bill. One week, the Nicholas Brothers might dance to the sounds of Jimmie Lunceford's orchestra, while the next time they played the Apollo it could be to the accompaniment of Duke Ellington or Claude Hopkins or Count Basie...

From Showtime at the Apollo by Ted Fox. Copyright 2003, Ted Fox. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.