Sunday, February 26, 2012

New York: Good Food and an Impromptu Tour of the Apollo Theater

Barbara had seen a restaurant review and we decided to try it out the next time we visited Brooklyn to see the grandchildren.

It’s called The Red Rooster after a famous Harlem speakeasy from the thirties and it is located near Bill Clinton’s New York office.  The great man sometimes comes in to eat the largely southern-themed food he likes, but doesn’t like him. 

Marcus Samuelsson
Harlem Blog
The chef, Marcus Samuelssen, has an interesting narrative.  Born in Ethiopia, orphaned at three, adopted by a Swedish couple, he grew up in Sweden,  came to America and was a hero in New York with Aquivit, still good after many years, then a zero with a couple of others, one of which closed after six months. 

He moved to Harlem six years ago and lives on a street a few blocks above the north end of Central Park.  He discovered his own personality in the diverse food and life in Harlem.  Some of what he saw in Harlem surprised him.  There were more wine shops there than liquor stores.  Harlem’s population was from all over the world and he loved the comfort food from the many cultures he found.  He fell hard for Harlem’s incredible history of rise, catastrophe and rise again and, like good cooks do, he cooked it over and over again and watched others cook the same idea until what is left is no longer just a recipe but an underlying point of view.

We liked Samuelsson’s food – I had blackened catfish with collard greens and black-eyed peas and Barb had a Fried Chicken Salad, the chicken warm with a very crunchy southern crust.  I almost ordered the Swedish Meatballs with lingonberries but knew that would tag me as Ballard through and through and thought better of it.  The cost was about right and our server a sweetheart but we wished we’d have eaten at the bar and possibly met and talked with some of the people who streamed in and waited for their tables, representatives of another Harlem iteration. 

So, we took a walk down Lenox Avenue, headed for the Museum of the City of New York, diverting to walk by the Apollo Theater, the place where every musical performer from Seattle to Liverpool dreams of playing and some actually do.  Poking our heads in, we heard singing from where the stage must be and asked if we could go check it out. 

“No,” we couldn’t, said Security firmly and the last scheduled tour ended hours ago. 

There are now three of us, a little German lady had followed us into the lobby and we clustered around two security people. 

“Let me call Billy”, the gatekeeper says and, into the phone, “would you do three?”  

The Apollo was built as a burlesque theater in 1913.  Black people were not allowed in to see the comedic variety shows that catered to largely immigrant men who worked too hard and needed to experience a laugh now and again and see a quivering bosom at the end of a performance covered by a vaguely diaphanous textile and a kind of nose cone, called a pasty, to save them from seeing the nipple.  What was permissible once the comedians left the stage varied.  In one show, a performer would forgetfully remove the last of her clothing and the final impediments between the audience and her breasts before getting to the wings, forgetting it three times a day.  Others would not have to wear pasties and could bare their breasts as long as they, by that I mean the performer, didn’t move.  Margie Hart, who Danny Kaye – one of the funny guys in these shows, wrote a song about with this line: “farmers would utterly utter when Margie Hart churned her butter.”  She had a boyfriend who was a New York cop.  He would tell her when the police would be planning to observe the performance and she would use this strategic information to retain or remove her G-String.  Unfortunately, it was a brief romance and Margie was soon busted.

Reformers like Mayor Fiorello Laguardia made a lot of noise about the vulgar behavior in these theaters. Once elected, he took office in 1933, he made it impossible to run a Burlesque theater in New York City by the mid-thirties.  By the way, before we leave the burlesque section, let’s check in on Margie Hart, making a fortune in Los Angeles real estate and marrying the then LA City Council President John Ferraro before dying in 2000, maybe 80-90 years old.
By the way, Burlesque is coming back to New York as well as in Seattle.  Classes are popping out, schools operate and dinner theaters produce shows. 

The end of burlesque in Harlem came along at just at the right time.  The Harlem Renaissance was happening and suddenly it had a real home in the middle of America’s greatest black neighborhood.  In 1933, an actor and producer named Ralph Cooper started the Harlem Amateur Hour at another venue in  Harlem but moved it to the Apollo the next year.  It was carried on 21 radio stations around the country and the show made the Apollo Theater a dream location in those markets where people listened on the radio and the exact spot to make those dreams come true on the stage for the few with talent.  Fifteen year-old Ella Fitzgerald was an early winner of Amateur Night.  Another teenager, Eleanora Fagin Gough, was playing the Apollo in the early thirties before changing her name to Billie Holiday and hitting it big with Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman.  Over the years, several other people got their start by winning the amateur contest -- Theolonious Monk, Sarah Vaughan, The Chantrels, the Isley Brothers, Leslie Uggams, Jimi Hendrix, the Jackson 5, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Patty Labelle.  There is a whole other category of performer for whom the Apollo was an early booking where they could hear hangers on around the stage asking “who’s that kid?”

As Harlem fell into the miasma of drugs and violence, the theater closed in 1970, shortly came alive in 1978 but was just hanging on until Percy Sutton, politician, businessman, media executive, bought the place and started working the political levers he had.  As in Seattle, in New York, when an institution or building is in trouble, among your first strategies is to make it a landmark, which happened in 1983 and in 1991 it was purchased by the State of New York.  Its management became the Apollo Theater Foundation, the non-profit running it today.  It is similar in size to Seattle's Moore Theater, but standing in the Apollo lobby in front of security, the Apollo looks humbler, reflecting its initial burlesque presumptions. 

Now, standing before us is in the lobby is Billy Mitchell, a short, bright man with a mocha colored face and a welcoming grin.  He has been associated with the theater since 1965 when a man inside opened the stage door and asked the kid in front of him if he could run a couple of errands.  As a result of this random act, Mitchell has helped support a family of 14 brothers and sisters, was sent to school by Marvin Gaye and James Brown and recently prayed with Paul McCartney before McCartney’s show two weeks ago.

“You’re going to like this,” he said, holding up a cellphone imagew of him and Mrs.  Obama.  “My last tour group with less than 20 people was Michelle Obama and her kids.”

And we liked it a lot.  A shrine like The Apollo is all about traditions and Mr.  Mitchell showed us a bunch of them. We climbed the narrow back staircase, the one Ray Charles struggled with. We also got to see the rehearsals for that evening’s Amateur Night and the young people, a rainbow mix of White, Hispanic, Asian and Black were exploding with energy as the clock ticked down to curtain time two and a half hours away at 6:30 PM. 

Mitchell introduces you to people in his community as if you have just dropped $50 grand into the maintenance fund.  Backstage, we shook hands with an Amateur Hour performer they call "The Executioner," who tap dances onto the stage with a broom and escorts off performers who have not pleased the raucous audience.  Oops, there’s the music director, another round of introductions.  Now, there’s a clutch of security going through their assignments.  Then the Managing Director, in a rush and in just his second month on the job, but looking a bit pleased, having hosted the President and Sir Paul back to back.

We go upstairs to the dressing rooms, mindfully unchanged since the 30s, 40s, 50s, traditional places where all the stars want to be despite the modern dressing rooms downstairs.  Obama wanted this tiny room, so did Sir Paul and Bruce Springsteen.  They want to sit at the same chair, look into the same mirror as Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan or James Brown. The red drape hanging in front of the window was added this year when McCartney was here.  A gaggle of paparazzi were stationed on the roof across the street with telescopic lenses trying to catch him in an unguarded moment.  Will the drape stay, another tradition?

For the past 15 or so years, they’ve asked every performer to autograph a black painted wall just off the stage.  It’s an impressive and lovely touch in need of new real estate. 

At stage right and illuminated by a single spot, there’s a part of a tree, one which stood in front of a theater a few blocks up the street and under which aspiring dancers, actors and musicians would gossip, complain and, to the tree, share their fears and hopes.  The "Good Luck Tree" fell victim to a street expansion and was sawed into firewood rounds which the Amateur Night Producer Richard Cooper saw on the way to work and had a revelation – put it on the stage so the performers can touch this remnant of human aspiration and perhaps catch their breath before they sing on the stage of the Apollo Theater!  They all touch it.

Race has always had a role at the Apollo.  But as R and B has found itself to the mainstream, the place has become less of a black theater and more a shrine to American music and entertainment.  The Welshman Tom Jones, who grew up, like the Beatles, loving America’s blues and rock, came to the Apollo as soon as he landed in New York -- and not to perform.  Mitchell says Jones’ first gig at The Apollo was as a driver.  Jones sensed, if he had to be a nobody in New York, that this was the place where it was best to be a nobody.

The rainbow colored kids who are getting ready to perform on the Amateur show betray the fact that this Harlem Renaissance underway today is not just about the arts and music, but also about the gentrification of parts of this neighborhood, parents looking for housing and good schools and willing to invest their very lives into a new neighborhood that could be part of another great comeback, erasing  the fear that gripped Harlem in the lost decade of the seventies.
The New York Times reports that 'Greater Harlem,' a wide swath running across Manhattan from river to river, blacks are no longer a majority of the population.  Only four in ten are black.  A smaller geography, 'Central Harlem,' a narrower band leading north from Central Park through the heart of Harlem, counted just 762 whites in 1990, 2200 in 2000 and 16,000 in 2010.  Clearly something is happening here, caused by and mitigated by several factors, but happening nonetheless. 

We left Billy Mitchell in the lobby, extracting an unshakable commitment from him that he would one day visit Seattle – he knows some musicians from Seattle – and we would certainly come back to see the amateur contest the next time in New York and certainly bring the kids, for whom he promised one of those special Michelle Obama tours. 

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