Apollo Theater Is Celebrated in a New Graphic Novel | Modern Society of USA

Apollo Theater Is Celebrated in a New Graphic Novel

Apollo Theater Is Celebrated in a New Graphic Novel

The graphic novel “Showtime at the Apollo: The Epic Tale of Harlem’s Legendary Theater” is like a sprawling Hollywood biopic. A sea of boldface names — James Brown, the Jackson Five, Dionne Warwick and countless others — make their way through the theater.

The work, adapted by Ted Fox from his 1983 history of the same name, and illustrated by James Otis Smith, goes beyond the singers, dancers, comedians and other entertainers who have taken the stage of the Apollo, which celebrates its 85th anniversary this month. The book also shines a light on Harlem and black culture in America.

Fox said he reworked his Apollo history into a focused narrative told in three acts, beginning years before the first performance at the theater. An early chapter highlights the Harlem Renaissance and some nightspots, like the Cotton Club, where black performers were popular, yet where black audience members were usually barred. It also notes that the Apollo name first turns up in 1922 — when it was the name of a burlesque theater.

An early page of “Showtime at the Apollo” — published by Abrams ComicArts and arriving in stores on Jan. 8 — states simply, “It is an epic tale.” An illustrated prologue, “A Quest,” shows the author in March 1980, when he meets Bobby Schiffman, the son of Frank Schiffman (a founder of the Apollo). The younger Schiffman, who temporarily shuttered the theater in 1976, agrees to cooperate with Fox on the book on one condition: “Write about the way the Apollo really was, the good and bad.”

The graphic novel juggles the sometimes harsh realities of the outside world and the magic of the performances on stage. There is drug abuse, robberies and riots — but the overall outlook remains upbeat. Like a biopic, the second act is filled with highs and lows. On Jan. 26, 1934, Hurtig and Seamon’s Burlesque is reopened as the Apollo Theater, whose inaugural show, “Jazz à la Carte,” is what the 85th anniversary this year commemorates.

In 1935, there is rioting and looting in the neighborhood, following accusations that two white clerks at a local store, S.H. Kress & Co., beat a young black shopper. (About 3,000 people descended upon S.H. Kress, according to a report in The New York Times.) During the unrest, the Apollo is spared from any physical destruction, as it will be time and again.

In 1943, Harlem experiences a worse riot when a police officer shoots and arrests a black soldier. A rumor of his death spreads and many white-owned businesses in Harlem are gutted, but there is an exception: “Nobody touches the Apollo,” the graphic novel reads. “A cordon of Harlemites forms spontaneously to protect the theater.” The book makes note of other riots in the ’60s and a shooting in the theater, in 1975, during a performance by Smokey Robinson.

These sobering moments balance the euphoria of other events, like the live recording of a 1963 album by James Brown, which stays on the charts for 66 weeks; or a 1980 performance by George Clinton, who opts for the Harlem stage over Madison Square Garden, a scene whose panels are filled with the refrain “One nation under groove” and “It’s Saturday Night at the Apollo.”

The Apollo artwork is filled with characters whose faces are known worldwide, in a palette of black, white and multiple blues. “I find color in comics — especially modern digital coloring — to be distracting,” Smith wrote in an email. “I love the somewhat anonymous commercial illustration of the ’40s and ’50s, and the physical limitations of print techniques. I tried to use the blue mainly as a graphic element.”

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