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D.C. exhibition will spotlight Apollo Theater's greatest hits, on stage and off

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010; C03

Their names are part of the cultural vocabulary: Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Lionel Hampton, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Redd Foxx, Duke Ellington, Diana Ross.

What they all have in common is the hot spotlight on the famed Apollo Theater stage. Although many of the artists are gone, the Apollo moments endure. And soon their songs, dance steps, dresses, suits, jokes and instruments will be gathered together in Washington to tell the story of the Apollo's special place in American life.

The theater, a national landmark in New York's historic Harlem neighborhood, stands as one of the 20th century's best-known entertainment spots. For its two-year 75th anniversary celebration, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the current administrators of the Apollo have organized an extensive exhibition about the theater and the performers. A list of artifacts that will probably be displayed was released Thursday.

Throughout the 3,000-square-foot exhibit, set to open April 23 at the National Museum of American History, there will be flashes of the Apollo mystique via listening stations and video clips.

Buck and Bubbles will tap. Lincoln Perry, the comedian known as Stepin Fetchit, will perform his "Richard's Answer" routine. Bessie Smith will belt out "St. Louis Blues," while Fats Waller will follow with "The Joint Is Jumpin'." Dizzy Gillespie's "Hot House" is on the bill, as are the Supremes, with "Back in My Arms Again." Newer generations will be represented by Chris Rock and OutKast.

"The Apollo, since its inception, has been the epicenter of African American culture," said Jonelle Procope, president of the Apollo Theater Foundation. "What has been interesting is to take the journey in American history through the lens of what was going on at the Apollo."

Built in 1914 on 125th Street, in the heart of what would become a major black American boulevard, the theater actually started as a segregated burlesque hall before being bought in 1934 by Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher. It was converted into a palace for talent shows, and its new owners insisted on integrated audiences. The theater itself is small, with only 1,500 seats, and this intimacy led to an unusual relationship between performer and audience. "The audience is a unique experience, because they are cheering you on if you are really great, and then they are letting you know if you are not on top of your game," Procope said.

Lonnie G. Bunch, founding director of the African American museum, says looking at the Apollo gave the curators a way to explore a story that went beyond the music.

"This is a window into so much of American entertainment. We always talk about the music, but there's also the comedy and the dancing," Bunch said. "It is a complicated story because it also reflected the changes in black America and, because it is in New York, the issues in the city itself."

The show's curators also examine the Great Migration and how Harlem became the capital of black America, tying together the theater, the intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance and such artists as Jacob Lawrence and James Van Der Zee. Along the way, the exhibit will touch on the Great Depression, race records (78 records made by black artists for black audiences during the early part of the 20th century), the tap dancing age, and radio's and television's influences on entertainment. The Apollo's musical tastes have changed with the times, from the 1962 arrival of both the Motown Revue and the Pacheco y Su Charanga band to many well-known white acts from the United States and Europe, and from Janis Joplin to Mick Jagger.

The theater went through some bad times, especially during the economic hardships of New York in the 1970s and 1980s, and closed for a few years. Part of the exhibition will tell how it was saved through the efforts of black entrepreneurs and the government. Recently, it has produced Apollo Legends Hall of Fame events, educational programs and television productions. Late last year, it launched the restaging of the Broadway hit "Dreamgirls," now on tour.

When James Brown died in late 2006, his body was placed on the Apollo stage, drawing thousands of mourners. When the news of Michael Jackson's death spread last year, fans crowded the streets outside the theater to express their emotion.

Procope hopes that the museum show will educate as well as help people reminisce. Headed to Washington are trunkloads of memorabilia. Artifacts will include a baton and white shoes from bandleader Cab Calloway; a trumpet from Louis Armstrong; dresses worn by Pearl Bailey, Patti LaBelle, Katherine Dunham, Smith, Fitzgerald and Ross; Ellington's traveling bag; and a nautical hat of Count Basie's. Other clothing items include Smokey Robinson's suit, a Parliament-Funkadelic member's boots, Willie Nelson's bandanna, Gillespie's fez and Jackson's fedora.

For national audiences, the Apollo's signature event was its Wednesday amateur night. For many, the introduction came through the radio show and then the weekly television program "Showtime at the Apollo."

In 1934, a 17-year-old from Newport News, Va., named Ella Fitzgerald won the Amateur Night. The same year, a 19-year-old from Baltimore, Billie Holiday, faced the legendary demanding audience. In the exhibition, the names of some of the more illustrious amateur night contestants will be enshrined in a special section: Billy Eckstine, Lauryn Hill, Gladys Knight, Luther Vandross, Jackie Wilson and Stephanie Mills (who won for six straight weeks). The Jackson 5 won in 1969.

Sadly, the Tree of Hope stump that contestants rubbed as they entered the stage will be represented only in a short film.

The exhibition will be at National Museum of American History until Aug. 29 and then travel to Detroit and New York.

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