The Apollo Theater, the legendary venue that jumpstarted the careers of many well-known artists, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Helping to commemorate the theater’s anniversary and rich history, the Smithsonian Museum’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture is presenting “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment,” a landmark exhibition debuting on April 23.

“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” recreates the experiences of those individuals who visited the iconic building on 125th Street in Harlem, N.Y,. over its 75-year history. The exhibition also explores the theater’s influential impact on American popular culture and how Black culture shaped America. 

“As a beacon of possibility and excellence, the Apollo is a perfect lens through which the museum can examine many of the country’s most important political, social and cultural developments,” Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the NMAAHC said in a press release. “The story of the Apollo yields incredible insight into the flux of the African-American life in the 20th century—from great migration to the urban north, through two world wars and into the Civil Rights movement.”

The Apollo was one of the first theaters in the country to fully fuse African Americans, Hispanic and local immigrants into one audience as well as the first to headline talented artists who could not perform in other venues.

Opening in 1914, Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theatre in Harlem, was the precursor to the Apollo and prohibited Blacks from attending and performing. After new management seized control of the building in 1934, Ralph Carter Sr., a New York City radio host, decided to transform his popular radio show into a live venue.

He opened “Showtime at the Apollo” at the once-segregated theater and featured the then-unknown singer Ella Fitzgerald as one of the first amateur acts.  The Apollo Theater quickly went on to be a renowned site where stars and legends were born including Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross among many others.   Now operated by the nonprofit Apollo Theater Foundation, the theater continues to be a historic venue for amateurs and legends alike.

“Aint Nothing Like the Real Thing” draws on the theater’s rich history and includes many costumes, pictures, music scores, playbills, instruments and artist interviews. The wide-ranging materials are presented in an effort to capture the emerging stars and living legends who once graced the famous stage.

“The Apollo has nurtured generations of artists and had has been a source of entertainment and inspiration to millions of people throughout its 75 years,” Jonelle Procope, president and CEO of the Apollo Theater said in a press release. “We are delighted to be partnering with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to present ‘Aint Nothing Like the Real Thing,’ which will illuminate the role the Apollo has played in the creative life of our nation.”

“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment” will debut at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture runs through Aug. 29.


Gregory Dale

AFRO News Editor