Last Thing They Wanted Was To Be Booed Off The Apollo Stage

Apollo Theater/Wendy LongoFlickr/CC-ND-2.0

December 14, 2017

Walking down the streets of Harlem in all of its historical glory is like stepping into a time machine. For African-Americans, glancing up at the shining Apollo Theater sign is a striking reminder of all the legendary Black entertainers whose big break happened right inside those renowned walls.

In 1934, the Apollo Theater opened its doors to African-Americans and became the first major theater in the United States to welcome Black performers after 20 years as a whites-only venue.

Seating over 1,500 patrons, the Apollo provided a space for rising Black talent to showcase their skills in front of New York’s wealthy and elite.

Notably, the Apollo’s transformation occurred on the heels of the Harlem Renaissance when Black culture, art, and music exploded into the national spotlight.  

Whether it was a 15-year old James Brown, 9-year old Michael Jackson, or 17-year old Ella Fitzgerald, there was no shortage of breathtaking performances.

The Apollo birthed an abundance of Black legends in the music industry, who went from relatively unknown to icons, largely because of the exposure they gained from gracing the Apollo’s massive stage.

According to the Apollo’s in-house historian, Billy Mitchell, “They [African-Americans] weren't allowed in mainstream establishments. And so when they were on the Apollo stage, they weren't legends. So that's why I call it a place of opportunity. They became legends after they appeared on the Apollo stage.”

Apollo changed the game when it began hosting amateur night, later named Showtime At The Apollo. On these nights, the audience expected stellar performances and let artists know immediately if they were not feeling it.

Hundreds of performers endured boos, laughs, and worse in front of one of America’s toughest crowds. If a performer was subpar, “sandman” chased the act off the stage while the crowd cheered their removal.

Notable performers whose live debut took place at the Apollo include Mahalia Jackson, Mariah Carey, Sammy Davis Jr., Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Luther Vandross, Lauryn Hill, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, Patti Labelle, the Jackson 5, and the list goes on and on.

The Apollo Theater is now a national landmark visited by over 1 million people annually who want to experience its electrifying atmosphere. If you can’t find time to visit the Apollo yourself, dive into Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing: How The Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment to learn more about this living piece of Black history.

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