One night in April 1935, a statuesque brunette stood backstage at the Apollo Theater in New York City. Aware that the theater’s tough audience could make or break her career, she froze. A comedian named Pigmeat Markham shoved her onto the stage.
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“I had a cheap white satin dress on and my knees were shaking so bad the people didn’t know whether I was going to dance or sing,” she would remember.
The ingénue was Billie Holiday.
She would perform at the Apollo two dozen times en route to becoming a music legend and one of the most influential vocalists in jazz.
For more than 75 years, entertainers—most of them African-American—have launched their careers, competed, honed their skills and nurtured one another’s talent at the Apollo Theater. Along the way they have created innovations in music, dance and comedy that transcended race and, ultimately, transformed popular entertainment.
“You can basically trace any popular cultural form that we enjoy today back to the Apollo Theater as the place that did it first or did it best,” says Ted Fox, author of the 1983 book Showtime at the Apollo. “It is an unmatched legacy.”
The Harlem theater’s groundbreaking role in 20th-century culture is the subject of “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” an exhibition of photographs, recordings, movie footage and other memorabilia at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History until January 2, 2011. (It then moves to the Museum of the City of New York and the California African American Museum in Los Angeles.) The exhibition was organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and the Apollo Theater Foundation.
The Apollo, previously a burlesque house for whites only, opened in 1934 to racially integrated audiences. Its reputation as a stage on which performers sweat to win the affection of a notoriously critical audience and an “executioner” shoos unpopular acts away can be traced to Ralph Cooper, the actor, radio host and longtime Apollo emcee. It was he who created the amateur-night contest, a Wednesday fixture and audience favorite that aired on local radio.
Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher, who bought the theater in 1935, adopted a variety-show format; promoted the amateur-night contest, eventually heard on 21 radio stations; and spotlighted big bands. In May 1940, the New York Amsterdam News reported, the theater turned nearly 1,000 people away from a sold-out Count Basie show that the paper called “the greatest jam session in swing history.”
“During its first 16 years of existence, the Apollo presented almost every notable African-American jazz band, singer, dancer and comedian of the era,” co-curator Tuliza Fleming writes in the exhibition’s companion book.