WASHINGTON (AP) — Michael Jackson’s fedora, Ella Fitzgerald’s yellow dress and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet are together in a Smithsonian exhibit celebrating the famed Apollo Theater that helped these stars to shine.
The not-yet-built National Museum of African American History and Culture is bringing New York’s Harlem to the nation’s capital with the first-ever exhibit focused on the Apollo, where many musical careers were launched. It opens Friday at the National Museum of American History.
About 100 items are on view, representing big names from entertainment today and from decades past.
“When I was growing up, the Apollo was for us our Radio City Music Hall — it was the theater to play in our community,” said singer and actress Leslie Uggams, 66, who toured the exhibit Tuesday. “From the time I was 9 until about 16, I played the Apollo with some of the great, great stars — Ella (Fitzgerald), Diana (Ross), you name them.”
The theater opened originally as a segregated, white burlesque hall in 1914. It was renamed the Apollo in 1928 and was early to integrate as black people migrated to Harlem, making it an African American cultural and political center. It was one of the first places where black performers could speak directly to white audiences, curator Tuliza Fleming said.
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In 1934, it became the home of a live version of a popular “Amateur Hour” radio show, and Fitzgerald was one of the first winners at age 17.
Like Uggams, who once performed 29 Apollo shows a week, and many others, the late King of Pop started early at the Apollo as well. Jackson won the theater’s Amateur Night as a youngster in 1967 with the Jackson Five.
The exhibit traces the Apollo’s history to its place on the campaign trail for President Barack Obama in 2007.
Among the items on view are Willie Nelson’s bandanna and sneakers, LL Cool J’s jacket, the Beastie Boys’ boombox, James Brown’s cape and jumpsuit, dresses worn by the Supremes, Miles Davis’ flugelhorn (on public view for the first time) and Sammy Davis’ childhood tap shoes.
“For some reason, it just doesn’t seem like old, vintage stuff,” dancer Savion Glover said during a preview while taking a look at Davis’ shoes. “It’s fresh. It seems like it doesn’t need to be in a museum yet.”
Curators are showcasing some newly acquired items for the museum slated to open in 2015 on the National Mall, including the hat from Jackson’s 1984 Victory Tour. His fedoras were made famous when Jackson wore them low over his eyes for the moonwalk. The museum purchased it at a recent auction, said Fleming.
Armstrong’s horn and Fitzgerald’s dress also are special additions, she said, because they show how an established artist like Armstrong helped propel the young Fitzgerald to greatness.
“Where else can an unknown work with the best in the field and then become one of the best in the field?” Fleming said. “Amateur Night at the Apollo allows for that to happen and that interchange to happen.”
The exhibit will be on view through August in Washington before traveling to Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the Museum of the City of New York.
The future black history museum will incorporate pieces into a future music exhibit, showing how African American music is integral to American music.
Billy Mitchell, who started work at the Apollo about 45 years ago as an errand boy and now is the theater’s historian and tour guide, said all the relics make him think, “I was there!”
“It will give people a better idea of what the Apollo is all about and what Harlem is all about,” he said. “Even though it’s the epicenter of black culture, African Americans, we’re not the only people that have made theApollo the wonderful theater that it is — so have white people, so have Latinos, Asian people, Indian. I’m telling you, everybody’s contributed.”