As African Americans migrated uptown to Harlem in large numbers in the 1910s and ’20s, existing theaters began showcasing black performers. Some of these venues welcomed black audiences.
The Apollo Theater, which had operated as a burlesque venue in the 1910s and ’20s, was relatively late in bringing on black entertainers. Although performers such as blues singer Alberta Hunter are said to have appeared here as early as 1930, African-American performers became the rule under new ownership in 1932. Three years later, again under new ownership, the Apollo instituted a permanent variety show format featuring leading black talent that would last until the 1970s. This was particularly important as, even through the 1950s, few major theaters across the United States featured black entertainers.
“…the Apollo offered [African-American performers] the opportunity they rarely had elsewhere.”
Every form of popular African-American entertainment – comedy, drama, dance, gospel, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, swing, bebop, rock and roll, and soul music – was showcased at the Apollo. LGBT luminaries included comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley; singers Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, Josephine Baker, Clyde McPhatter, Little Richard, Carmen McRae, Johnny Mathis, Arthur Conley, Carolyn Franklin (and sister of Aretha), Billy Preston, Nona Hendryx, Teddy Pendergrass, and Luther Vandross; and gospel greats Clara Ward, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Marie Knight, Alex Bradford, Ruth Davis, Jackie Verdell, and James Cleveland.
During the 1960s, a popular attraction at the Apollo was the Jewel Box Revue, America’s first traveling troupe of gender impersonators (though many of the performers may have defined themselves as transgender today). During an era of racial segregation, the group was particularly notable for its racially integrated cast of 25 men and one woman, master of ceremonies Stormé DeLarverie. The revue, which drew mixed-race audiences, also toured around the country.