Harlem Postcard

By Donald H. Sanborn III

“Welcome to the world famous Apollo Theater. This is the real deal!” exclaims Steve Harvey, host of Showtime at the Apollo. “If you say you can sing, we’ll let you know. If you think you’re funny, we’ll let you know. If you’re not…?” “We’ll let you know!” chants the audience. “This is the only show in the world where the audience truly decides who has talent, and who doesn’t,” Harvey declares. “There are no judges, celebrity judges. It’s people. People decide. This is where stars are born. This is where legends are made!”

Harvey’s remarks opened a special presentation of Showtime at the Apollo, which aired December 5. The Fox network will broadcast a second special on February 1.  As with the series that ran from 1987 to 2008, the special included performances from Amateur Night, which the theater presents on Wednesdays at 7:30. “Booing belongs to us,” Harvey continues. Booing is not confined to the Apollo, however. In a Broad Street Review article titled “Why Opera Audiences Boo,” Diana Burgwyn notes that tenor Roberto Alagna was booed at La Scala, though the audience cheered his understudy, Antonello Palombi. Obviously, this gladiatorial aspect of musical interaction is something television producers often have exploited with programs such as American Idol and The Voice, as well as Showtime at the Apollo.

If booed relentlessly, unlucky Amateurs are ushered offstage by the “Executioner,” who uses a mop, shepherd’s crook, or other props. The current executioner is a tap dancer named C.P. Lacey, whose James Brown impressions brought him to the attention of Amateur Night’s creator, Ralph Cooper. “I really don’t want to do it,” Lacey tells an interviewer for the Apollo’s YouTube channel. “But once the audience starts booing them, it’s my job—my obligation—to rid the stage of any unwanted acts.” Lacey got his start by substituting for the previous executioner, Howard “Sandman” Sims. Like Lacey, Sims diligently carried out his executions. Backstage, however, he encouraged his “victims” with his own story: in his first ten Amateur Nights, he too was chased off stage—but then he won twenty-five times.

Traditionally, Amateur Night participants touch the “Tree of Hope” before they perform, “supposedly to get good luck,” Apollo historian Billy Mitchell explains during a tour for the Biography network. The Tree of Hope is the stump of an eight-foot tree that used to stand on 131st Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, in front of the now-defunct Lafayette Theatre. “The Tree used to be the gathering place for unemployed entertainers back in the 1930s. They’d sing, they’d dance…hoping that somebody would like them and hire them. And—boom!—what do you know? That started happening! Everyone who performed around the tree got a job somewhere,” Mitchell reveals. When the tree had to be chopped down so that the sidewalk could be enlarged, the performers—who thought it had brought them luck—wanted a piece of it. Ralph Cooper decided to bring the stump to the Apollo stage,  “so the amateurs could rub it, hoping they don’t get booed off the stage!” Mitchell says.

Apollo Theater event (c) SA PRO, Inc.


For Amateur Night contestants who do succeed—even previous execution victims—the supportive applause is genuine and thunderous. On November 21, 1934, one nervous teenager was not booed; on the contrary, she won $25 as first prize. (By contrast, the current Grand Prize offered on the theater’s website is $10,000.) Her name was Ella Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald was born in 1917 in Newport News, Virginia. She moved to Yonkers, New York when her father, William left and her mother, Temperance (“Tempie”) found a new man, Joseph Da Silva. When Tempie died in 1932, her sister Virginia took Ella into her home, in Harlem. In Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, Stuart Nicholson writes, “Rumor was spreading of Joe’s ill treatment of his stepdaughter.”

As a young adult, Fitzgerald earned money as a lookout at a brothel, as well as a numbers runner for the Mafia lottery. Because of her interminable absences from school, she eventually was caught by the authorities and sent to the New York Training School for Girls, in Hudson. She escaped, but could not return to her aunt’s home for fear of being tracked. She went instead to Seventh Avenue, in between 130th and 140th streets. Known as “Black Broadway,” the area was full of street performers. Nicholson notes that Ella “earned tips and got by as best she could.”

Fitzgerald’s musical influences included Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and the Boswell sisters. Ella particularly enjoyed imitating Connee Boswell, whose musical style she would apply to other performers’ songs. She also loved to dance; she would sneak into the Savoy Ballroom, on Lennox Avenue and  140th Street, to learn the latest steps.

For Amateur Night, Ella’s intention had been to dance, but she wanted to avoid unfavorable comparison with the Edwards Sisters, a dance duo. Instead, she sang two numbers: “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.” Stuart Nicholson writes that, “to Ella’s surprise and delight, she brought the house down.” However, while she pocketed the $25, as well as the honor of becoming the first female performer to win Amateur Night, she was denied what should have been the second part of her prize: a week of employment at the theater. Ralph Cooper could not overlook the way she dressed, a result of the poverty in which she was living. “The theater was beginning to attract the top movie, radio and stage stars of the day in its audience…and image counted,” Nicholson writes. However, the evening still gained Fitzgerald an important connection. Benny Carter, whose orchestra accompanied Ella, was impressed by her performance. Carter introduced her to Chick Webb, whose orchestra she joined in 1935, and led after Webb’s death in 1939.

Last October, Fitzgerald, who died in 1996, was honored with a concert, 100: The Apollo Celebrates Ella. The performers included Andra Day, Kevin Spacey, and the Count Basie Orchestra, along with many others. The songs included “How High the Moon,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and “Without a Song.” Monica Mancini, who performed “Give Me the Simple Life,” had met Fitzgerald through her late father.

“Long before anyone knew her as a powerhouse performer, Ella Fitzgerald made a name for herself at one of the earliest editions of Amateur Night,” says Kamilah Forbes in a statement, the theater’s Executive Producer. “Her innovations in vocal jazz that started on our stage exemplifies the Apollo’s tradition of nurturing creativity and pushing artistic boundaries. For Ella’s centennial birthday, we’re thrilled to celebrate the Queen of Jazz, the timeless talent she represents, and the generations she has inspired.”

Three more events will take place this spring. Live Wire: Ella! A Centennial Celebration, a discussion of Fitzgerald’s legacy, on March 23; Apollo Music Café: Ella Fitzgerald Tribute, featuring contemporary jazz artists, will be presented April 7; and a special Jazz edition of Amateur Night on April 19, six days before Ella’s birthday. Visitors to the Apollo’s lobby can view a picture of luminaries who performed at the theater, in which Fitzgerald is prominently featured. Duke Ellington, Patty LaBelle, and Sammy Davis Jr. are among those pictured with her.

Apollo Theater event (c) SA PRO, Inc.


Fitzgerald participated in one of the first Amateur Nights, as the feature had been introduced shortly after the Apollo’s 1934 re-opening. In 1914, the theater had opened as Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater. Only white audiences and performers were permitted, and the entertainment, as the name suggests, was risque. However, Fiorello LaGuardia, the Congressman-turned-Mayor, banned burlesque. Hurtig and Seamon were forced to close in 1933. The following year, owner Sidney Cohen re-opened the theater, re-naming it the Apollo. The choice of a name was deliberate, as Billy Mitchell explains to Biography: “Apollo was the Greek god that represented the sun, and music, and poetry…those were the elements these new owners wanted to bring to this building in 1934.”

Besides the name change, a new type of entertainment was sought to fill the stage. “Our white brothers and sisters wanted to see black people perform, because they had heard about all these fantastic black performers like Fats Waller, Cab Calloway. But they weren’t allowed to see them perform, because theater owners didn’t let blacks in their theaters.” Mitchell tells Health Beauty Life. “Well, the guys who bought the Apollo said, since no other theaters in Harlem allow ‘colored people’ in their building, we’re going to be the first.”

Others soon followed. In 1934, a year before they took over the operation of the Apollo, Leo Brecher and Frank Schiffman undertook management of the Harlem Opera House, which stood on 211 West 125th Street. Brecher and Schiffman attempted to turn the theater into a competitor for the Apollo, which included giving it an “Amateur Hour” of its own. Again, Ella Fitzgerald won first prize for singing “Judy.” This time she also was awarded a week’s employment, as well as her first newspaper mention, in the New York Age. In the mid-1930s, however, the Harlem Opera House became a movie theater, and it was demolished in 1959.


Still standing is the Hotel Theresa, now an office building named Theresa Towers. Built in 1913, the hotel was known in the mid-20th century as the Waldorf of Harlem. Its guests included Malcolm X and Fidel Castro. The manager of the hotel’s bar was Andy Kirk, a former big band leader. In addition to its individual residents, the Hotel Theresa also housed Harlem institutions such as the March Community Bookstore and Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity.

The Studio Museum in Harlem exists to promote artists of African or Latino descent. The museum’s website underlines that “the Artist-in-Residence program was one of the museum’s founding initiatives, and gives the museum the ‘studio’ in its name.” Current exhibitions include Circa 1970 and Harlem Postcards. Both of these will be available through March 5.

In addition to the Fitzgerald centennial events, the Apollo Theater will present Afropunk: “Unapologetically Black” The African-American Songbook Remixed. This February 25 event will “pay homage to black protest music and iconic and contemporary artists who have celebrated the power of being unapologetically black,” promises the calendar on apollotheater.org. The fifth annual Africa Now! will be on March 11. On March 31, the Harlem Symphony Orchestra will perform as part of the School Day Live series, an arm of the theater’s educational outreach. “This is the place where dreams come true, but this is also the place where dreams end,” Steve Harvey warns. But the Apollo is helping to ensure that future Ella Fitzgeralds have the opportunity to dream.