Photo: Abrams ComicArts
The historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York has served as one of the world’s main stages on which a ‘who’s who’ of Black entertainment excellence showcased and honed their talents. This month, the Apollo will celebrate its 85th anniversary. Just in time to recognize this significant milestone, will be the release of a graphic novel that not only tells the story of how the Apollo Theater came to be but also provides a glimpse into Black culture in Harlem that provided the backdrop for such a culturally iconic space to emerge.
In 1983, Ted Fox captured a history entitled “Showtime at the Apollo: The Epic Tale of Harlem’s Legendary Theater.” Now, a graphic novel adaptation of his work will bear the same name and also feature illustrations by artist James Otis Smith. The narrative has been condensed to be told in three acts. Early chapters will share reflections from the Harlem Renaissance period and note venues where Black performers often performed but were not allowed as audience members. In true biopic fashion, Fox chronicles the 1980 exchange between him and Bobby Schiffman (son of Apollo founder, Frank Schiffman) when he agreed to support his project under one condition: “Write about the way the Apollo really was, the good and bad.”
Act two begins during the early 1920’s, when the new theater was a burlesque show venue. In 1934, it re-opened as the Apollo Theater. In spite of community unrest and persisting racial tensions in the form of riots, robberies, and drug abuse, the Apollo Theater quickly garnered a sense of pride from Harlem citizens and as such, the theatre was never damaged in these violent acts of destruction. As more performers began to share their talents on the Apollo stage, attending shows in the theater quickly became a source of refuge for Black people where if only for a few hours they could disconnect from the harsh realities existing just outside of the theater doors.
The third and final act of the novel captures a new era of leadership for the Apollo after new management takes over in 1983. Soon after, the iconic performance space was declared a New York City landmark and underwent significant renovations. While updates and structural improvements were badly needed, ultimately the goal of both indoor and outdoor renovations was to preserve as much of the original look of the sacred space as possible.
The dynamic illustrations of the graphic novel are done mainly in very simplified black, white, and blue hues. Precisely drawn images depict an inside view of the theater and various historic Apollo performances, including the live recording of James Brown’s 1963 album “Live at the Apollo” that remained on the R&B charts for 66 weeks. Notable performances by Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and many others are also mentioned and/or illustrated in the novel.
Be sure to order this novel via Amazon.com or expect arrival in your local bookstore this month!