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HBO documentary celebrates NYC's Apollo Theater

The Apollo Theater marquee from HBO's documentary film

The Apollo Theater marquee from HBO's documentary film "The Apollo." Credit: HBO

Christian Guardino, now 19, was 14 when he first walked on to the stage at 253 West 125th Street in Harlem. There he stood, born blind at birth until most of his eyesight had been restored just a few years earlier in an experimental procedure. He was now in the high church of African American musical achievement and artistry, about to attempt a song— "Who's Lovin' You" — once performed on that spot by the Jackson 5.

 "I was," he recalls, "petrified."

Understandable, possibly inevitable: The Apollo is famously unforgiving and has been for most of its 85 years. Luther Vandross appeared here four or five times before finally getting a pass from the audience. As a 13-year-old, Lauryn Hill sang the song Guardino was about to attempt. Boos aren't just expected but considered a rite of passage, a grim badge of honor, occasionally a career-ender. 

The kid from Patchogue did fine, winning the grand prize in “Amateur Night at The Apollo Stars of Tomorrow” category in 2014. He's been back many times since. "I love that place," says Guardino who was a finalist on "America's Got Talent" in 2017. "They're like family there. The entire production crew, everybody backstage, the security, the regulars in the crowd, the people in concessions. Everyone is so nice  and they really want to see you succeed."

The Apollo gets its HBO closeup Wednesday, Nov. 6 at 9 p.m., in "The Apollo," a portrait by Roger Ross Williams that explores its vast impact on the history of American music, but one also framed by a spoken word performance on the Apollo stage of Ta-Nehisi Coates' 2015 National Book Award winner, "Between the World and Me." The film is equal parts music celebration, a meditation on the struggle of black lives in America and the role the theater continues to play in that struggle.

It would be safe to assume that performers like Guardino don't fit in that particular narrative but also fair to assume the Apollo helped make certain that performers like him could perform there one day. That's the gift of the Apollo, too.

In a phone interview, Williams — who won a 2010 Oscar for the short "Music by Prudence" — said that while producing the film "it hit me that this has always been a place where we express who we are and what we are and it continues to be that place. Now, the rest of America, the rest of the world, has joined in their love of black music and black entertainment.

"That's why artists from all over the world, young aspiring artists, many from Japan, have come here. That's why Paul McCartney wanted the Beatles to go to the Apollo when they first came to America, because they had taken the music and were selling it back to white audiences. That's the power of black music, the power of the black artists" who had performed there."

That "Who's Who" of artists might best be set up as a question — Who hasn't performed at the Apollo? "Amateur Night" winners alone have included Sarah Vaughan, King Curtis, Ruth Brown, Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson, Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, Frankie Lymon, Leslie Uggams and James Brown.

Since the doors first opened on the "125th Street Apollo Theater" on Jan. 26, 1934, every major genre over that eight-decade span achieved glory on this stage — jazz, swing, bebop, R&B, gospel, blues, and soul. When other New York venues started to cool on hip-hop in the late '80s following a few violent incidents, the Apollo kept the acts coming. That's one reason Long Island rap pioneers Eric B. and Rakim — of Elmont and Wyandanch, respectively — reunited there a couple years ago.

First by osmosis, then by radio, and finally by TV, the Apollo's influence spread from Harlem in neatly concentric circles to the world beyond, beginning with the New York region, drawing many performers from Long Island alone. Before and after moving to Dix Hills in the early '60s, John Coltrane played a set of historic performances at the Apollo. By the late '80s and early '90s, Eric B. and Rakim were regulars. Public Enemy came through here countless times, and (Uniondale's own) Busta Rhymes too. Erick Sermon (Brentwood), LLCool J (Bay Shore), De La Soul (Amityville), and Freddie Foxxx (Westbury) each ran the Apollo gauntlet as well.

Rev. Donnie McClurkin (Amityville), now pastor of Freeport's Perfecting Faith Church, was one of many to bring gospel to the Apollo.

"Amateur Night" and radio were the catalysts for Apollo superstardom. What was first called "Auction Night" in the mid-1930s soon became "Amateur Night in Harlem," held on Mondays. The Harlem Opera House a couple hundred feet east on West 125th held its own amateur night on Tuesdays. When WMCA started broadcasting the Apollo's version — which by then had moved to Wednesdays — the battle was won. Everyone started coming to the Apollo, including dancers (Sammy Davis Jr.), and comedians ("Moms" Mabley). The crowd was tough, boos encouraged, but the Apollo's spirit was openhearted from the beginning. 

Television arrived in 1987, with the syndicated "Showtime at the Apollo," first with Sinbad as host, later Steve Harvey. Like "Soul Train," which launched in 1971, this was one of the few places on TV viewers could watch black performers.

One of those viewers was the Rev. Jerome "City" Smith of the Evergreen Missionary Baptist Church in Huntington, who grew up with "Showtime" as a kid in Hempstead. "Every TV in the neighborhood was tuned to 'Showtime' [and] you'd usually have three acts, the first and last really good, and the second really really terrible, which they did on purpose, so the Sandman could come out."

Howard "Sandman" Sims, a particularly fine tap dancer who died in 2003, would become better known as the Apollo's hook, pulling failed acts off the stage with heatrical flourish. He was a huge hit in his own right.  

Smith, a veteran musician, recalls playing Sam Cooke in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story" at the Schubert in the early '90s, in which he "reenacted the scene at the Apollo where Buddy Holly was booked as the first white act to play there because the promoter thought they [Buddy Holly and the Crickets] were a black act. 

The Apollo, says Smith, "was and is an institution that enveloped black pride. It was a showcase for our greatness, something that was ours, not compromised. It was a pillar of pride for us. There was nothing else like it."

Nothing still is.

ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS ON HIS HBO DOCUMENTARY

Like so many admirers, Roger Ross Williams, born 46 years ago in Easton Pa., first learned about the Apollo from afar. It was only when he got up close that awe replaced the admiration. "When I was a student at NYU I'd go to 'Amateur Night,'" said Williams, director of HBO's "The Apollo." "What amazed me was the way the perforrmers interacted with the audience. I grew up in the black church [but] to hear it in an entertainment setting was mesmerizing for me."

Williams' "Apollo" spans that history, with interviews from many legends, each of whom has performed there, including Angela Bassett, Common, Jamie Foxx, Doug E. Fresh, Savion Glover, Patti LaBelle, Paul McCartney, Smokey Robinson and Pharrell Williams. Apollo stalwarts like longtime audience member, famous in her own right, Eva Isaac, finally gets her TV closeup, while Apollo historian Billy Mitchell, "Mr. Apollo" himself, walks viewers through that rich and complicated past.

When Williams began the film, he says he was "pretty shocked" to learn "there hadn't been a major documentary feature on the Apollo in the 85 years. Black people in America have lifted ourselves out of the legacy of slavery and segregation, and the Apollo stage has always been the stage where we really express who we are and where we are in America, starting back when Billie Holiday sang 'Strange Fruit.'"

"The audience and performers now are not all black [but] brown and yellow and white and all the colors of the rainbow. That's a great thing but the message from that stage still must be the message of empowerment for black people."

Nevertheless, "anyone can walk off the street and perform on that stage," he says. As "The Apollo" demonstrates, anyone has. And how.

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