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Glitz and Glamour Meets History

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution, premiered its latest exhibition this week.  Titled Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment, it focuses on the famed New York theater and its role in building the careers of some of America’s most legendary musicians, dancers, and comedians.  Visitors to the exhibition learn how influential the Apollo Theater has been to the development of American popular culture in the twentieth century and beyond.  Tuliza Fleming, from the NMAAHC, and I (Guthrie Ramsey, the University of Pennsylvania) curated the exhibition, which will also travel to Detroit and New York City.

Music and Style in the Age of Hip Hop

Michael Jackson, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Savion Glover, MC Lyte, The Supremes, LL Cool J, the Nicholas Brothers, and Celia Cruz are among the many stars featured in the show.   The exhibition is organized chronologically and includes an introductory film, artifacts, photographs, and lots of information about the famed theater’s history and importance.

The crowd was buzzing that evening as a band played, food and drinks were enjoyed, and excited visitors viewed the exhibition.  On my train ride home, a woman and young man stopped me and asked had I attended the exhibition opening. She said that she was there as well and introduced herself as Cab Calloway’s daughter!  We had a great exchange on the platform about Calloway’s importance to American entertainment—how he was “moonwalking” long before the King of Pop, how his vocal dexterity foreshadowed rap music, and how surprisingly small his feet looked to me (his shoes are featured in the exhibition).  It was that kind of night.

Check out this link to an interview about the exhibition that I did for JazzTimes recently .  And stay tuned for more as the excitement continues to grow!

In the meantime, enjoy entertainer Cab Calloway and the amazing Nicholas Brothers in the 1943 film Stormy Weather as an example of the kind of infectious excitement one could experience at the Apollo.

The Nicholas Brothers still had it as they danced with Michael Jackson in 1977.

In a riotous example from a 1932 Fleischer Studios Talkartoon short cartoon, Cab Calloway performs the hit “Minnie the Moocher.”  It starred Betty Boop and features Calloway effortlessly performing moves that look like the famous moonwalk.

Dr. Guy