For those of who think Harlem’s Apollo Theater is the syndicated television show of the same name, the California African American Museum’s (CAAM) ongoing exhibition, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” should be an eye-opener.
In celebration of that venerable venue’s 75th anniversary, the Smithsonian Institute has organized a national tour that documents the transition of this world-famous music hall from it’s inception in 1914 as a burlesque establishment catering to a White-only clientele through it’s evolution into a showplace for the ever-changing musical styles and genres of African American entertainment and culture.
In the aftermath of World War I, hundreds of thousands of returning Black veterans, including the heroic “Harlem Hell fighters” of the 369th Infantry Regiment disembarked in New York on their way home from the European trenches, and many of them stayed in Harlem.
This influx was abetted by a steady stream of recent migrants from the South in the first Great Migration and marked the birth of the urban Black communities in the North.
The northern neighborhood of Manhattan, called Harlem, was especially hospitable to Negro tenants. In the book published in tandem with this exhibition, a passage cited the famous photojournalist Jacob Riis reporting that landlords actually preferred Black tenants, because they were cleaner and more steady than “lower grades of foreign White people.”
The emerging neighborhood fostered a wide range of thriving businesses and played host to a growing number intellectuals, manifested by the sprouting of the Harlem Renaissance. The Apollo followed suit with its introduction of theatrical genres dating from the previous century.
Soon it gained a reputation for presenting “America’s smartest Colored shows” as a welcome respite from the drudgery of the Depression. Among the featured staples was the implementation of Wednesday’s “Amateur Night,” a precursor of today’s American Idol, in which the audience became as much a part of the performance as those on stage. A performer’s success could be gauged by the cheer or jeers generated by the spectators, punctuated by the appearance of an “executioner” armed with a broom, who literally swept the second-rate and untalented from the stage decades before the advent of Simon Cowell.
Swing bands and vaudeville, popular in the 1930s and ’40s, segued into Rhythm & Blues revues, shared the stage with flourishing talents from the “Chitlin’ Circuit” during the 1950s, and as the social and political climate shifted in the 1960s, the Apollo periodically did double duty as a platform for dissent in addition to its regular function as an amusement organ. The music reflected the changing times as well, evidenced by the lyrics of Curtis Mayfield (“Keep on Pushing”), Nina Simone (“Mississippi Goddam”), and especially James Brown (“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud!”).
As anyone familiar with the geography of New York knows, the Apollo stands just blocks from the vivacious community known as Spanish Harlem, and musicians reflecting this bastion of Caribbean rhythm and melody have often graced its stage. These included Puerto Rican Tito Puente, and La Guarachera de Cuba (“the World’s Cuban Queen”), Miss Celia Cruz.
As the inhabitants of its stage have echoed the changing trends in Black music, the Apollo Theatre’s fortunes have reflected the ebb and flow of the community it serves. It experienced its own decay and was even revamped as a movie house in the mid-1970s.
Through the efforts of civil-rights activist and lawyer Percy Sutton, it underwent a long campaign of rehabilitation, and today it is owned by the state of New York and enjoys status as a federal, state, and city landmark.
Maintenance and operation is assumed by a nonprofit entity, befitting its significance as more than just a mere structure housing the performing arts. An education and community outreach program is in place within the facility as well.
The Apollo recognizes the legends that have added to its reputation by doing such things as serving as a location for the body of James Brown to lie in state following his death in 2006. Similarly, a memorial service was held for Michael Jackson on the first anniversary of his demise in 2009.
The exhibit itself is handsomely mounted, and prominently displays numerous artifacts from its celebrated history, including the tap shoes worn by a pre-teen Sammy Davis Jr., a wooden appendage worn by legendary “hoofer” Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates, and the famous black fedora used by Michael Jackson during one of his tours.
Running from June 2 through Sept. 4, the presentation is augmented by several lectures, presentations, and workshops, the details of which may be accessed at the museum website at www.caamuseum.org