Dreaming and Screaming at the Apollo

Article excerpt


The marquee of the Apollo Theater looms over the shoulders of celebrants and celebrities in many memorable photos taken on West 125th Street. It hovers over a jubilant crowd congregating to cheer Joe Louis' victory over Max Schmeling in 1938. The marquee dimly lights the background in an early 1960s photograph of Malcolm X chatting on a Harlem corner with Ralph Cooper, the famed emcee of the theater's Amateur Night. And even today, as it emerges from renovation, the Apollo marquee remains a favorite spot in my neighborhood, where tourists pose and capture their New York moment.

While the marquee is a veritable dateline, the theater's stage is a landmark. A pantheon of notable musicians and entertainers have marked their ascendence with an appearance at the Apollo, which was built in 1913. Vocalists such as Sarah Vaughan, Little Esther, Leslie Uggams and Ella Fitzgerald got their start at the Apollo, winning Amateur Night competitions. Redd Foxx, Slappy White, and Moms Mabley were among the comedians who kept audiences in stitches and rolling in the aisles. It was like a second home for the big bands of Lionel Hampton, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. "After you've played the Apollo, you've got it made," asserted the late bandleader Andy Kirk, a fixture at this show palace in the 1930s. Whether you were an aspiring crooner with pipes like Billy Eckstine, a doo-wop group like the Orioles, or a member of a dance troupe or a gospel revue, the Apollo was the Mecca of your entertainment pilgrimage.

When I was coming of age in Detroit, I remember reading in Jet magazine about Sugar Chile Robinson taking the Apollo by storm. Since he was my friend, I dreamed I could do it too. Later, in the early 60s, living in New York City for the first time, I learned firsthand about the remarkable venue, and like Elvis Presley, who ventured to the Apollo in the mid-5Os, I had sense enough to be only a spectator and toot my flute in the privacy of my apartment.

It was the audience that terrified Rudy, Sonny, Feefee and me when for a fleeting moment we thought about taking our little ensemble on the Amateur Night stage back in the day. We knew the humiliation of being hooted off the stage because we had often added our voices to the gaggle of boos and taunts when an act had more audacity than polish. …


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