The first exhibition to explore the Apollo Theater’s seminal impact on American popular culture will be presented this spring by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment examines the rich history and cultural significance of the legendary Harlem theater, tracing the story from its origins as a segregated burlesque hall to its starring role at the epicenter of African American entertainment and American popular culture. Among the watershed moments celebrated by the exhibition:
- James Brown’s hyperkinetic performances and the live recordings that went on to become best-selling classics;
- Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s spell-binding footwork in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera;
- Ella Fitzgerald’s Amateur Night debut at the age of 17;
- The Jackson Five’s breakthrough performance, featuring a 9-year-old Michael Jackson;
- The Supremes in a dazzling Motown Revue.
Organized by NMAAHC in association with the Apollo and in celebration of the Apollo’s 75th Anniversary, Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing will be on view in the new museum’s gallery in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History from April 23, 2010 – August 29, 2010.
Following its premiere in Washington D.C., the exhibition will be presented at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History from October 1, 2010 – January 2, 2011, at the Museum of the City of New York from January 30, 2011 – May 1, 2011, and in four additional U.S. cities to be announced. The tour is being presented in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.
“Since 1934, the Apollo has been a driving force in shaping America’s musical and cultural landscape,” says Jonelle Procope, President and CEO of the Apollo Theater. “The Apollo has nurtured generations of artists, and has been a source of entertainment and inspiration to millions of people throughout its 75 years. We are delighted to be partnering with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to present Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, which will illuminate the role the Apollo has played in the creative life of our nation.”
Evidence of seismic social changes and instances of astounding musical innovation, as well as subtle shifts in public taste and mores, will emerge from this portrait of the Apollo. A focus of the exhibition will be Amateur Night at the Apollo, the legendary Wednesday night revue founded in 1934 by Apollo emcee Ralph Cooper. Amateur Night has entered millions of American homes over the decades via radio and television, boosting the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, The Jackson Five, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Thelonious Monk, Luther Vandross, and countless others.
“Succeeding at the Apollo meant that you were firmly grounded in African American culture and very, very good. And as a beacon of possibility and excellence, the Apollo is a perfect lens through which NMAAHC can examine many of the country’s most important political, social and cultural developments,” says Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of NMAAHC. “The story of the Apollo yields incredible insight into the flux of African American life in the 20th century – from the great migration to the urban north, through two world wars, and into the civil rights movement.”
The exhibition’s co-curators, Tuliza Fleming of NMAAHC and Guthrie Ramsey, Associate Professor of Music History, University of Pennsylvania, are assembling historic and contemporary costumes, play bills, music scores, graphic images, video clips and recorded music to document Apollo performances by emerging artists and living legends. The materials are drawn from a number of private and publicly held collections including those at the African American Museum of Philadelphia, the Ella Fitzgerald Foundation, the Library of Congress, the Museum of the City of New York, NMAAHC, the National Afro American Museum of Ohio, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
A companion book, with a foreword by Motown singer, songwriter and producer Smokey Robinson, and an introduction by Bunch, features historic photographs and essays by 23 historians, musicologists and critics including Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Levering Lewis, author of W.E.B. DuBois: A Biography and Robert O’Meally, founder of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University.
On View in the Exhibition
Jauntily illustrated playbills and season passes document the Apollo’s transformation from a whites-only burlesque hall – with its boisterous, and eventually outlawed, “shimmy shakers” – to an integrated theater for daytime and evening variety shows. The popular revue show format usually set a headliner – often a band leader such as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington or Tito Puente – alongside six or seven unrelated acts, which would feature a spell-binding mix of singers, instrumentalists, tap dancers, female impersonators, chorus-line dancers, acrobats, and comedians bantering with emcee Cooper throughout the show.
The exhibition will spotlight the work of a wide spectrum of entertainers including comedians Redd Foxx, and Jackie “Moms” Mabley; blues artists B.B. King and Bessie Smith; dancers Sammy Davis Jr., Katherine Dunham and her troupe, Savion Glover, the Nicholas Brothers; jazz artists Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holliday; hip hop performers LL Cool J and Run-DMC; Latin musicians Mario Bauza, Celia Cruz, Machito, and Mongo Santamaria.
Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing will offer a fascinating glimpse into the way business was conducted at the Apollo. A typical day would feature as many as six two-hour shows beginning at 10 a.m. The demanding nature of the business will be seen in a collection of standard index cards on which Apollo owner Frank Schiffman kept carefully worded and meticulously typed records of the performers. On each card Schiffman would note his personal impression of an act, the audience’s reaction, and the amount paid; an index card for Count Basie reads, “Played well. Nice personality. Unfortunately, no drawing power by himself.”
A riotous jacket of pink and yellow stripes, yellow pants, minstrel wigs and black-face makeup trace the roots of African-American comedy at the Apollo to the black vaudeville tradition. Also on view will be the tiny guitar played by comedian-singer, Timmie Rogers, a veteran of the vaudeville circuit who did something considered bold in the 1940s: he abandoned his clownish, crowd-pleasing costume to appear in a tuxedo and lace his song and dance act with sharp social satire. At Rogers’ first booking at another theater, he was told that he “was doing a white man’s act” and fired on the spot. By 1957, however, he had earned top billing at the Apollo.
Long, gossamer-white evening gowns worn by the Supremes, Duke Ellington’s engraved silver cigarette case, and a royal purple tunic worn by one of the members of Katherine Dunham’s dance troupe are among the objects chosen to show how the stars of the Apollo served as glamorous role models for Harlem audiences.
Following its showing in the NMAAHC Gallery, Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: The Apollo Theater and American Entertainment will travel to Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (October 1, 2010 – January 2, 2011), the Museum of the City of New York (January 30, 2011 – May 1, 2011), and four additional U.S. cities to be announced.