Leslie Uggams was 9 years old when she made her debut at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1952.
Uggams, who spoke at a recent event for the Smithsonian’s opening of an exhibit featuring the theater, said performing at the Apollo was like going to school for her. As a child, the singer opened for legends such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington.
In doing that, Uggams joined the ranks of performers who kicked off their careers at the venerable theater, including Billie Holiday, James Brown, the Jackson 5 and Sammy Davis Jr. Now the singer and actress tours the country and performs on Broadway, but she attributes much of her success to the grueling schedule at the venue where she got her start.
“So I would say to people who say to me, How do you do theater on Broadway?'” she said. “I say, Honey, after you do 29 shows a week, eight shows a week ain’t nothing.'”
The National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Apollo Theater Foundation will honor the Apollo Theater as it celebrates its 75th anniversary with the exhibit “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment.” Hosted inside the National Museum of American History, the exhibit will be open Friday through Aug. 29 and will then travel to Detroit and New York City. Among the artifacts on display are Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, Michael Jackson’s fedora and Ella Fitzgerald’s dress. The entrance to the exhibit mimics the theater’s own entrance with its iconic sign, ticket booth and murals.
The theater first opened as a whites-only burlesque hall in 1914. In a reflection of the changing neighborhood, it was renamed the 125th Street Apollo Theater and marketed toward the African-American community when it was sold in 1934. In the decades since, the theater continued to present the best culture of the neighborhood and African-Americans across the country. Count Basie, Bill Cosby, Aretha Franklin, Bob Marley, Prince, Patti LaBelle, Korn and the Black Eyed Peas are among the many who have graced the Apollo stage. The exhibit functions as a look at not only the Apollo over the last 75 years but also the cultural life of Harlem.
“The Apollo is a story of optimism. It’s a story of innovation. It’s a story of resiliency. And it’s a story about playing our hearts,” said Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The theater has just 1,536 seats, and its patrons are famous for making their opinions known. In the exhibit, for instance, popular modern comedian Dave Chappelle recalls being booed off the stage. Uggams recalled that the intimacy of the venue could make a good night great or a bad night truly painful. Pictures and videos of performances — including a young Tina Turner — enable museum visitors to decide for themselves.
The venue is as influential today as it has been in the past. President Bill Clinton, whose foundation has an office two blocks east of the theater, visited the theater after its restoration in 2005, and then-Sen. Barack Obama campaigned there in November 2007. The theater kicked off its two-year 75th anniversary season in 2009.
The exhibit is a sign of things to come in Washington, D.C. The National Museum of African American History and Culture plans to break ground next to the Washington Monument in 2012 and is expected to open in 2015.