Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment

Apollo Theater Exterior, 2008. Credit: Courtesy of the Apollo Theater Foundation; Photo by Shahar Azran

The exhibition is the first to explore the rich history and the cultural significance of Harlem’s Apollo Theater. It features photographs and artifacts to trace the story of the theater from its origins in 1913 as a whites-only burlesque hall to its starring role at the epicenter of African American entertainment. 

This exhibition is organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Among the one-of-a-kind and rarely displayed artifacts in the exhibition are:

  • James Brown’s cape and jumpsuit—Brown was an Apollo regular even after he reached superstar status.
  • Michael Jackson’s fedora—Jackson won Amateur Night in 1967 with the Jackson 5. The Supremes’ dresses—The original trio first played the Apollo in 1962 as part of the dazzling Motown Revue.
  • Cab Calloway’s baton—Calloway was one of the most popular swing era band leaders.
  • Sammy Davis’ childhood tap shoes—Davis first appeared on the Apollo stage in 1947.
  • Peg Leg Bates’ peg leg—Despite losing his left leg in an accident at age 12, Bates pursued his dream of tap dancing. By the mid-1930s, he was an Apollo regular.
  • Duke Ellington’s score for Black and Tan Fantasy (1927)—The legendary jazz composer and bandleader wrote some of the best-known compositions in American music.
  • Ella Fitzgerald’s dress—Fitzgerald made her Amateur Night debut at the age of 17.
  • Miles Davis’ flugelhorn—Davis frequently headlined at the Apollo.
  • LL Cool J’s jacket and hat—LL Cool J remains one of today’s best-known rappers.
  • Celia Cruz’s dress—Known as the Queen of Salsa, Cruz was a symbol of Afro-Cuban music throughout the African diaspora.

Featured objects are drawn from a number of private and publicly held collections, including those at the African American Museum of Philadelphia, the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, the Library of Congress, the Museum of the City of New York, the National Afro American Museum of Ohio, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Traveling exhibition

The exhibition will travel to:

  • Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (Oct. 1 – Jan. 2, 2011)
  • Museum of the City of New York (Jan. 20, 2011 – May 1, 2011)
  • California African American Museum (June 2 - September 4, 2011)
  • Atlanta History Center (October 10, 2011 - March 3, 2012).

The exhibition tour is organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). For a complete schedule visit