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Apollo Theater Subject Of New Smithsonian Exhibition



Exhibition Opens in Washington D.C. on April 23, 2010, Tours to Detroit, New York, and Other U.S. Cities


Washington, D.C. — 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.


The Companion Book

Published by Smithsonian Books, the richly illustrated book will explore the social and historical significance of the Apollo and the cultural impact of the artists who performed there.  Zita Allen, a former critic for Dance Magazine, focuses on the legacy of the Apollo chorus line dancers.  Greg Tate, at work on a biography of James Brown, investigates the unique success of the God Father of Soul. Mel Watkins, author of On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy, writes about pioneering comedians at the Apollo.  Ethnomusicologist Christopher Washburne, founding director of the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program at Columbia University, writes about Latin music at the Apollo.


Apollo Theater

Celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2009-2010, the Apollo Theater, a non-profit institution, is one of Harlem’s, New York City’s, and America’s most iconic and enduring cultural treasures.  The Apollo was one of the first theaters in New York, and the country, to fully integrate, welcoming traditionally African-American, Hispanic, and local immigrant populations in the audience, as well as headlining uniquely talented entertainers who found it difficult to gain entrance to other venues of similar size and resources.  Since introducing the first Amateur Night contests in 1934, the Apollo Theater has played a major role in cultivating artists and in the emergence of innovative musical genres including jazz, swing, bebop, R&B, gospel, blues, soul, and hip-hop.  Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis, Jr., James Brown, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, Gladys Knight, Luther Vandross, D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, and countless others began their road to stardom on the Apollo’s stage. Based on its cultural significance and architecture, the Apollo Theater received state and city landmark designation in 1983 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  For more information, visit


The Apollo Theater’s 75th Anniversary Season is made possible by generous funding from The Edward and Leslye Phillips Family Foundation, The Coca-Cola Company, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bloomberg, and New Amsterdam Gin. 


National Museum of African American History and Culture

The National Museum of African American History and Culture was established in 2003 by an Act of Congress, making it the 19th Smithsonian Institution museum. It is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, art, history and culture. The Smithsonian Board of Regents, the governing body of the Institution, voted in January 2006 to build the museum on a five-acre site adjacent to the Washington Monument on the National Mall.


The building is scheduled to open in 2015.  Until then, NMAAHC is presenting its touring exhibitions in major cities across the country and in its own gallery at the National Museum of American History.


The museum is at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W. in Washington, DC.  It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. except Dec. 25.  Admission is free.


For more information, visit or call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).


Media Contacts:  



LaFleur Paysour                       

(202) 633-4761


Apollo Theater

Nina Flowers                            

(212) 531-5334


Leah Sandals

Resnicow Schroeder Associates

(212) 671-5154




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