Exhibition on Apollo Theater Coming to Smithsonian

Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

Poster of Apollo Theater performance
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Apollo Theater Marquee
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Leslie Uggams performing at the Apollo in 1952
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Guthrie Ramsey can’t wait for the exhibition on the Apollo Theater to open at the Smithsonian. The musicologist has been working for almost two years on the exhibit that eventually will tour the U.S.. The moment he’s waiting for is when he walks through the show with the general public and sees their reaction to the sights and sounds that he and his co-curator Tuliza Fleming organized for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “That is going to be so special,” says Ramsey. “I can’t wait.”

The first exhibition to explore the Apollo Theater’s seminal impact on American popular culture, 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.

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 until 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.

This was Ramsey’s first exhibition, but as a professor of musicology at University of Pennsylvania and a scholar of African-American culture (and a part-time musician), he managed to debut with a dream project: presenting the incredible history of perhaps America’s most famous performing arts theater. “The Apollo is so familiar and ubiquitous that you take it for granted, but it’s really a storied place,” explains Ramsey. “The challenge for me was to switch to focus on an object rather than music. Tuliza [Fleming] had done a lot of museum curating before, so I think we made a great team.”

Naturally, the first step in the process was to gather all of the material – photos, documents, memorabilia, et al – related to the theater’s history. “The archives were spread out,” notes Ramsey. “But it was somewhat organized. The Apollo had saved a lot of material in a storage facility. But you know that running a theater business is not necessarily conducive to keeping an archive, so a lot was thrown out.” The long-time owner of the theater, Frank Schiffman, had donated his papers to the Smithsonian and that collection proved to be a boon for the curators. The curators also contacted many of the performers (and their estates) to ask them to donate or loan material related to the venue. Among the very special “relics” in the show are: a trumpet from Miles Davis; guitar from B.B. King, dress from Bessie Smith; Duke Ellington’s cigarette case; Savion Glover’s tap shoes; and, of course, a cape from James Brown.

Even for an Ivy League professor of African-American musicology, there was plenty to learn about the iconic theater. “To be honest, I didn’t know it [the theater’s long history] that well. Like anyone, I saw it as this nostalgic or mythic place. It seemed to me to be magical. But going through the material, I learned just how much hard work and sacrifice it took to make the magic. Behind the scenes, there were so many people working hard. The demanding hours, particularly for the chorus girls, were tough. That place took its toll.”

Ramsey also got to learn about the legacy of the theater’s original and longest owner (from 1935 through the mid-70s), Frank Schiffman, an Austrian Jew who looked around at the changing neighborhood and saw a niche for his business, by focusing on African-American talent. “Any time you have commerce and art brought together, there will be debates about opportunism and exploitation, but the story of the Apollo is very much an all American story. When you talk in broad terms about the American music industry, you can use the Apollo as a case study.” Ramsey attributes the variety show format to Schiffman, who structured the sets so that there would be something for everybody. “He ordered the lineup to that you could hear your own taste.”

In the early days of the Apollo, there were similar theaters in the major Northern cities, such as the Dunbar in Philadelphia and the Regal in Chicago. However, the Apollo was the only one to not only survive, but even thrive. Ramsey believes it’s because of that old real estate maxim-location, location, location. “When New York City became the center of culture in this country, a theater located there became very important. And you had all the powerful people keeping it going.”

Many music fans might associate the Apollo primarily with soul, R&B and funk, but Ramsey is quick to point out that a sizable segment of the theater’s heyday corresponds nicely with the period when jazz was very much a popular music. Therefore, few of the notable jazz bands and orchestras of the 30s and 40s didn’t perform there. Among the jazz artists who regularly appeared there were the orchestras of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Chick Webb and Cab Calloway, as well as artists like Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan.The shift away from jazz occurred in stages but it happened concurrent with the birth and subsequent growth of rock and roll, soul and R&B.

One of the most famous attributes of the Apollo has always been its audience. Ramsey believes the image of the loud and critical Apollo audience is largely a self-fulfilling prophecy. And it began with the establishment of an Amateur Night in 1935. “The audience believed that they had a stake because in fact they did. It shouldn’t be a surprise that they were so vocal.”

Nonetheless, many a performer has their own story about performing there for the first time and being booed or heckled and then using that as motivational fuel to make their act stronger. “We heard a lot of stories of musicians being afraid of the Apollo and its audience,” explains Ramsey. “Being rejected there is part of the creation story for so many artists.”

One of the greatest challenges faced by Ramsey, Fleming and a large staff of writers, editors and designers was how to capture what Ramsey calls the “liveness” of the place and time. “We wanted the exhibit to feel like you were actually attending a show at the Apollo and going through that most unique experience. The designers really created a feeling of vibrancy so that you’re experiencing more than a photograph, more than a recording.”

Visitors to the exhibit will be greeted by a short video that introduces visitors to the Apollo’s legacy through a narrated montage of photos, footage and music. From there, the exhibit celebrates the special artists and moments associated with that venue.

Certainly, there is no shortage of special moments to be celebrated. Among the watershed moments celebrated by the exhibition:

• James Brown’s 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.

In addition, a companion book, with a foreword by Motown singer, songwriter and producer Smokey Robinson, and an introduction by Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of NMAAHC, 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, jazz musician and scholar Chris Washburne, Burnt Sugar leader and author Greg Tate, and Robert O’Meally, founder of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University.

Ramsey says that he had to adjust his writing and approach in order to connect with the widest possible audience. “My writing for the exhibit definitely went through many layers of edits. Initially, I was writing in my scholarly voice. My associates had to remind me that the story had to reach a wide swath of people. It’s called public musicology. We wanted this exhibit to reach younger audiences as well. We want them to be able to touch the greatness.”

Ramsey thinks that they’ve found the right note to make the exhibit accessible to whoever comes through the doors of the Smithsonian. And that day comes on April 23, when the exhibit opens at the National Museum of American History on the Mall in Washington, D.C.. Ramsey can only wait until the rest of the world experiences Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing. Though he’s expecting neither deafening applause nor boisterous catcalls, he’s ready just the same.