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.”
One historic moment that comes to life is a performance by the bandleader Lionel Hampton. A caption reads, “Hampton has a penchant for clearing the Apollo, even if it means leading the audience out with his own band!” On two sequential pages, Smith illustrates the band playing, the puff of smoke that allows Hampton to disappear from the stage, the rapturous audience and a march down West 125th Street to the cheers of those outside.
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.”
Smith credits Pete Friedrich, an art director, for a lot of the design work, which includes smartly placed newspaper clippings that move the story along.
The story notes that performing at the theater was physically demanding: During its heyday, an engagement meant a weeklong commitment of 31 shows.
Benny Payne, who played piano for Cab Calloway, describes challenging logistics: playing two shows at the Apollo and two at the downtown Paramount theater on the same day, leading to frantic cab rides with back-seat outfit changes. Despite the unrelenting artistic demands of the space, it would be financial issues that brought the theater down: In late 1979, the I.R.S. closed the Apollo for payroll-tax violations.
But the third act delivers the start of a happy ending: The Apollo gets taken over by new management in 1981, begins renovations in May 1983 and, one month later, is designated a New York City landmark. Financial mismanagement strikes again; The Daily News earns a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1999 for its coverage of the plight of the theater. Order is restored, followed by an outdoor renovation that is unveiled in 2005, with the theater’s marquee made to look as much as possible as the original — though this time with a multitude of lights.
The final dialogue in the graphic novel belongs to Francis Thomas — a.k.a. Doll, or Mr. Apollo — who was a veteran of the Harlem entertainment scene. He was the theater’s manager, technician, and, ultimately, its caretaker, and he lived in an apartment in the theater. Thomas pulls back a metamorphic curtain on the Wednesday amateur nights, which began in the 1930s and continue today. “It’s Harlem’s high spot,” he says. “The Apollo will always be that.”