The Apollo Theater, located at 253 West 125th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, produced more tap dance acts than any theater in New York City. Built in Harlem in 1914 as a burlesque house, it reopened in 1934 as a movie and variety house. The theater stood behind a gaudy neon sign. You bought your ticket at a sidewalk booth, for 15 cents, mornings, to a 50-cent top on Wednesday and Saturday nights. You then entered through a narrow lobby lined with bathroom tiles, glistening mirrors, and photographs of Harlem idols Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong. The house seated 1,750 people in the parterre and two balconies; adjacent to the stage, on both sides, were several roomy box seats. The stage was edged with applied pilasters of imitation marble and the curtain was a startling crimson. Doors opened at ten in the morning and closed past midnight. In 1934, Frank Shiffman and Leo Brecher began presenting stage shows. The bill, based on a tried-and-true vaudeville variety format, began with a short film or cartoon, followed by a newsreel and a feature film. Then the Master of Ceremonies announced, to the rising applause and screams from the audience, “Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s show time at the Apollo!” Ba-ba-boom, the band would break into the Apollo theme song and the show was off and running.
For Harlemites, the Apollo was the cultural core of the Harlem community, the neighborhood social hall where the audience had the power to make or break careers. “As appreciators, the audience enforced a standard of excellence to which all performers, amateur or professional, aspired to,” wrote Ted Fox in his history of the Apollo. “When a new show came to the Apollo, all the buck dancers would show up,” remembered Cholly Atkins, who played there in 1935 as one of the Rhythm Pals. “When the big-name dance acts played the Apollo, there was no one in the audience but dancers with their shoes,” recalled Howard “Sandman” Sims. “Up in the balcony, dancers, and in the first six rows you saw nothing but tap dancers-- wanna-be tap dancers, gonna-be tap dancers, tried-to-be tap dancers.”
The greatest tap acts of the day appeared at the Apollo, including Bill Bailey, Peg Leg Bates, Berry Brothers, Bunny Briggs, Eddie Brown, Ralph Brown, Willie Bryant, Honi Coles, Sammy Davis Jr., Edwards Sisters, Teddy Hale, Gregory and Maurice Hines, Nicholas Brothers, Baby Laurence, Pete, Peaches, and Duke, Juanita Pitts, Leonard Reed, Bill Bojangles Robinson, Salt and Pepper, Sandman Sims, Alice and Bert Whitman, and many others.
The competition on the Apollo stage was sometimes so fierce that tap dancers were forced into more flash and acrobatic stunts as each act tried to outdo the others. Tip, Tap, and Toe (Sammy Green, Raymond Frazier, and Raymond Winfield) wooed the audience by dancing on small oval platforms, sliding forward, backward, sideways, and in circles. Son and Sonny built their act around speed. Pops and Louis (Albert “Pops” Whitman and Louis Williams) never performed the same routine twice, with Louis performing whatever struck his fancy, and Pops topping it with front-and-back spins, as well as Russian-twist moves in which he spun like a top.
James “Buster” Brown first played the Apollo Theater in 1936 as a member of the Speed Kings, known for their speed and precision. When Miller Brothers and Lois (George, Danny, and Lois Bright) played the Apollo with the Jimmie Lunceford band in 1939, they one-upped the other acts by performing high-speed rhythm tap dance on a set of four-foot-high pedestals, each one shaped to spell their name: M I L L E R.
Apollo audiences especially appreciated such comedy dance teams as Chuck and Chuckles (Charles “Chuck” Green and James Walker) who played rubber-legging Stepin’ Fetchit-like characters and gained laughs with their molasses-like locomotion; the knockabout comedy team of Cook and Brown (Charles “Cookie” Cook and Ernest “Brownie” Brown) who combined acrobatic stunts and grassroots humor with eccentric dancing; and Stump and Stumpy (James “Stump” Cross and Eddie “Stumpy” Hartman, later Harold Cromer) who capitalized on their contrasting heights and personalities, combining comic banter, scat singing, and a swinging style of tap dancing.
Of all the tap dancers to grace the Apollo stage, the sixteen female dancers who made up the Apollo #1 Chorus were considered to be the best female dancers in New York, unmatched by any chorus line on stage or film. “Through these portals pass the most beautiful girls in Harlem,” the backstage entrance to the Apollo read. The Apollo #1 Chorus was the backbone and the rhythmic body and soul of every Apollo performance. Among the hundreds of dancers who worked in the chorus line during the 1930s were such notables as Ristina Banks, Carol Carter, Marion Evelyn Edwards, Elaine Ellis, Myrtle Hawkins, Temy Fletcher, Cleo Hayes, Mable Lee, Jackie Lewis Parton, Jackie Bass Pinkney, Thelma Prince, Fay Ray, Ruby Riley, Hazel Walker Rogers, Juanita Boisseau Ramseur, Yak Taylor, and Bertye Lou Wood. Many performed in the Apollo chorus line from 1934—when it was called the Apollo Theater Rockettes—to 1940, when the Apollo “Number One” Chorus was directed by Ristina Banks.
The theater has continued to be a home for tap. In 1990, the Apollo’s Rat-A-Tat Festival featured Brenda Bufalino and the American Tap Dance Orchestra, Charles “Honi” Coles, Savion Glover, Gregory Hines, Howard “Sandman” Sims, Copasetics, and Silver Belles. In recent years, tap dancers including the Tap City Youth Ensemble have appeared at Amateur Night at the Apollo and artist including Ayodele Casel have presented their solo shows.
By Constance Valis Hill (2016)
American Tap Dance Foundation
American Tap Dance Center
154 Christopher Street #2B New York, NY 10014
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