Apollo Theater's history celebrated at California African American Museum

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The Apollo Theater marquee during the James Brown viewing on December 28, 2006 in New York City.

“Ain’t Nothing like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment,” tells the story of one of the most important cultural institutions in America’s history through music, images, period artifacts and video.

Michael Jackson’s fedora sits placidly in a display case. Small and simple, Jackson’s trademark accessory peers out of its glass case modestly — as if it had never graced the stage atop the famed leather- and sequin-wearing pop star.

Celia Cruz’s dress is a different story. The orange and purple gown cascades to the floor in layers, invoking the Cuban singer’s vibrant approach to music and life. Five feet away stands Miles Davis’ flugelhorn, shiny and inscribed with the artist’s name in cursive.

These items are but a fraction of a much larger exhibit currently on display in the California African American Museum (CAAM). Organized by the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and the Apollo Theater Foundation, the exhibit takes visitors on a trip through the history of an institution that has come to represent more than just music and comedy.

“The Apollo Theater ... was a university of sorts,” says Elise Woodson, the museum's education curator and program manager.

She describes how Jackson would stand in the wings of the stage to watch artists like James Brown play. “Young people could come and learn, get their chops there,” Woodson says of musicians who played at the Apollo.

But the Apollo wasn’t as welcoming to new talent when it first opened. The theater originated as an all-white burlesque venue in 1914 and didn’t open to African-Americans until 1934.

As the African-American population grew in Harlem, so did the Apollo’s role as a community hub. An event called Amateur Night brought the neighborhood together to suss out new talent, determining the musical fate of artists with cheers and boos. Often described as the original model for American Idol, Amateur Night facilitated the rise of innumerable stars, among them James Brown, Sarah Vaughn and Lauryn Hill.

For Woodson, the sense of community nurtured at the Apollo is something she hopes visitors take away from the exhibit. Noting that a lot of today's entertainment is expensive and located in large suburban arenas, Woodson says, “the Apollo Theater was right on 125th street in the community. It was reasonable, and quality entertainment ... that’s how art and entertainment and culture should be.”

And just as the Apollo Theater was accessible to all, the NMAAHC wants its history to be appreciated by all. On their website, Director Lonnie Bunch stresses, “This is not a museum that celebrates black history solely for black Americans. Rather we see this history as America's history. NMAAHC [uses] African American history and culture as a lens into what it means to be an American.”

Dan Morgenstern, Director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, agrees. “Music itself is an example of how various cultural legacies ... came together and created something new that hadn’t been heard before,” Morgenstern says.

The Apollo Theater was granted city and state landmark status in 1983. In 1991, the Apollo became a not-for-profit organization, offering educational opportunities to the residents of Harlem in addition to continued performances.

And while Amateur Night lives on, Morgenstern says the theater is not the same as it used to be. “The music of today is very different,” he says. “It isn’t the same thing as the authentic stuff.”

Luckily, the CAAM will be holding events all summer that will bring visitors even closer to some of said authentic performances at the Apollo.

On July 17, Fran Morris Rosman, executive director of the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, will lecture on “Lady Ella’s” career and show some rare television footage of her performances. Rosman will tell visitors some little known facts about Fitzgerald – such as how the jazz vocalist initially went to Amateur Night on a dare by her girlfriends, planning to dance instead of sing at the competition.

“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” runs at the California African American Museum until September 4. Located at 600 State Drive in Los Angeles, the museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

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