One night in the fall of 1934, a young woman stood backstage at the Apollo Theater, sweating and in obvious discomfort. A stage hand asked if she was ill. No, she replied, she wasn’t ill. ‘It’s that audience, man. You never know what they’re gonna do till you get out there.’ The woman was Ella Fitzgerald, then just 17. The occasion was Amateur Night, the show ‘where stars are born and legends are made’ that also launched the careers of Billie Holiday, Michael Jackson, Sarah Vaughan, The Supremes, and many of the biggest names in 20th-century black entertainment.
Vaughan, The Supremes, and many of the biggest names in 20th-century black entertainment.
As you will learn on a tour of the legendary theater, Ms. Fitzgerald had good reason to be terrified. Audiences were notoriously vocal in their displeasure, and if less than pleased they would yell for the ‘executioner,’ a man with a broom who would sweep the contestant off stage. You’ll also hear how, when the theater opened in 1914, blacks were not admitted. By the mid-1930s, the Apollo was featuring such all-black revues as Jazz a la Carte and 16 Gorgeous Hot Steppers and was at the center of the Harlem Renaissance, the great surge of music and literature that swept through New York’s famous black neighborhood in the 1930s and ’40s.
More than 75 years after the first legends got their start at Amateur Night, the show goes on – every Wednesday, at 7.30pm.