Showtime at the Apollo: The Epic Tale of Harlem’s Legendary Theater
Due out in January is a comic-format reworking of a significant entertainment history. Ted Fox’s 1983 book Showtime at the Apollo: The Story of Harlem’s World Famous Theater has been converted into a graphic novel illustrated by James Otis Smith.
Showtime at the Apollo: The Epic Tale of Harlem’s Legendary Theater is clearly an adaptation of a prose work, with text boxes explaining key moments in the location’s history, but the illustrations add more hooks to show the reader just how important this Harlem entertainment venue has been. (It marks its 85th anniversary in 2019!) So many big names played there when they visited New York City, and amateurs could launch a career if they went over well. As the publisher said,
[This book] “brings to life the theater’s legendary significance in music history, African American history, and to the culture of New York City. [C]ountless performers have gotten their break at the Apollo, including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Jimi Hendrix, Wilson Pickett, the Miracles, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Jackson 5, Patti LaBelle, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, [and] Aretha Franklin.”
It’s marvelous to see so many artists portrayed and quotes included, making this almost an oral history. Smith does a great job with the likenesses. They’re not photo-realistic but still recognizable while still demonstrating artistic style. I found Fox’s inclusion as a character a helpful guidepost to how the book came to be as well. It’s astounding how many people wanted to talk to him about this subject, passing him around to share their stories. Superstars like Elvis and the Beatles even make cameo appearances, wanting to see performers there. Playing the Apollo put a stamp of legitimacy on up-and-coming acts.
Beyond being a significant performance venue, it was a community anchor for a group that didn’t find as much acceptance elsewhere. When not playing, people shared gossip, gambled, and gave each other tips. Chapters cover
- the development of Harlem as an entertainment destination in the early years of the 1900s
- the Schiffmans, the Jewish family that owned the theater, their hardball tactics, and the varied ways they were perceived by the community
- some of the most famous bands, comedians, and dancers to play the Apollo
- the legend of Amateur Night and its demanding audience
- the invention of bebop and later, rhythm and blues
- changes in the business with the advent of records and rock’n’roll
- gospel revues and their effect on more commercial soul music
- the tough times when the theater went dark in the late 70s and later ownership changes, leading to an eventual renovation
An afterword by Fox explains how the original book came together. At a relatively brisk 240 pages, obviously there are a lot of subjects merely touched on, but the whole package is a wonderful journey through pop culture history, particularly good for the reader not yet familiar with the details.
Showtime at the Apollo will be available the first week in January. It can be ordered now from your local comic shop with Diamond code NOV18 1391. (The publisher provided an advanced digital review copy.)