City Pulse

By Laura Werling

Apollo Legend Dionne Warwick

On February 8, 2011, an exhibition opened at the Museum of the City of New York titled 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 in collaboration with the Apollo Theater, this exhibition traces the history of the Apollo Theater and its role in the evolution of the music industry and American culture. Countless legends and stars’ music careers have been launched and nurtured on the stage of the Apollo Theater and the exhibition celebrates the rich history of the venue. It also includes a very interesting history of Harlem, the New York City neighborhood that had so much influence on the artists who flourished at the Apollo. Costumes, album covers, photos, videos, recordings and historical artifacts associated with the Apollo are all on display by decade.

The exhibition is full of information, from the beginnings of Harlem to the celebrated career of Michael Jackson. It guides viewers through the early 1900s up through today, telling the story of the Apollo and its many success stories. Black culture and black politics in America has its roots in Harlem and the exhibition shows us how the culture of the theater acted as a center for growth and change. The Apollo had a major role in American history, specifically in changing attitudes about race, segregation and integration and social change in America. Text and photographs detail the interesting creation of history and the impact the Apollo had not just in Harlem, but the whole United States.

Accessories and artifacts once belonging to stars like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Miles Davis, Pearl Baily, Ray Charles, the Supremes, B.B. King, Patti LaBelle, LL Cool J, and Michael Jackson are on display, among many others. At the press preview, which I was fortunate enough to be able to attend, I was surprised and delighted to see Dionne Warwick and Chuck Jackson speak candidly about their times performing at the Apollo and how it shaped their careers as musicians. The Museum of the City of New York is a perfect place for such a display, as the Apollo Theater had so much influence in the history of New York City culture and music from early on. The rich culture and history of the Apollo is outlined with pride and joy in this exhibition, and is a definite must-see for anyone who calls himself or herself a New Yorker.

Apollo Legend Chuck Jackson

Jonelle Procope, President and CEO of the Apollo Theater, commented, “Since 1934, the Apollo has been a driving force in shaping America’s musical and cultural landscape. The theater has nurtured generations of artists, and its stage has played host to milestones, from Ella Fitzgerald’s historic Amateur Night win to memorial services for Apollo legends James Brown and Michael Jackson, from Nat ‘King’ Cole’s record-breaking two sold-out weeks of performances in the 1940’s to Barack Obama’s electric campaign rally in 2007. We are thrilled to be partnering with the Smithsonian and the Museum of the City of New York to bring the exhibition home and give New Yorkers an opportunity to learn about these and countless other incredible Apollo stories.”

Originally published February 2011
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