THE BLOG
02/24/2014 06:15 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2014

The World's Toughest Audience and Playing the Apollo

As soon as the Apollo Theater opened in 1934, word spread uptown and down that something hot was happening on 125th Street. For, with a virtual monopoly on Harlem theatrical show business, the Apollo could attract and feature the finest entertainment. Its audiences came to expect the best, and their wild enthusiasm inspired the best. Their displeasure with those who did not meet their expectations produced a reaction few performers who experienced it would ever forget. The crowd at the Apollo earned the moniker, "The World's Toughest Audience."

The audience was the power that made or broke careers. But it was much more than that. It was the heart and soul of the African-American community, the embodiment of the spirit of Harlem -- the force that truly made the Apollo great. As appreciators, the audience enforced a standard of excellence to which all performers, amateur and professional, aspired. Those performers who failed to give the Apollo crowd their all, or attempted to elevate themselves at the audience's expense, always regretted it. Nina Simone once refused repeated audience requests to sing her hit song, "Porgy" -- and the audience got up and walked out en masse.

The Apollo's mainly black audience -- sometimes vulnerable in the white world beyond the theater's doors -- sat at the center of the greatest city in the world, in the middle of the most important black community in the country, right on Harlem's main street, in the top black theater of all time. They were invincible here. But as comedian Harold Cromer said, 'They didn't come out to boo you. It was just, 'Hey, Jim, I paid my thirty-five cents!' " Their intention was not to be malicious, but to demand and reward greatness.

Wise entertainers realized this, and learned from it. "The Apollo was really the basis for my becoming the kind of performer I am today," said R&B pioneer, Ruth Brown, "because it taught me stage presence. It taught me how to have rapport with my audience. It taught me humility. It taught me not to be so grand, not to get so carried away that you feel these people are idiots that are coming out here to watch you -- because that is not the case. It taught me that my audience was always first and foremost." As Dionne Warwick told me in my book, Showtime at the Apollo, "I think the greatest performances of anybody have been at the Apollo Theater."

To be a part of the Apollo audience was to be a part of the show. This implicit link with the performers onstage created a charge like that between the two poles of a battery, and it electrified the atmosphere at the Apollo.

When the master of ceremonies announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, it's showtime at the Apollo!" a roar of glee would erupt from the kids in the first few rows all the way up to the second balcony, moving like a wave between the nearest and farthest extremes of the theater. Soon the whole audience was enveloped, screaming and cheering. A performer hitting the stage was greeted by this frenzied scene, which was amplified by the sheer physical closeness of the audience. The popular performers always emptied the first few rows of the orchestra as the kids rushed the stage, which stood no higher than chest-level to them. Even the first balcony, which hung so low that it blocked the sight lines of some of the rear orchestra seats, seemed to loom unnaturally close to the stage. The stage-side boxes were usually filled with celebrities. There were guards on hand to keep the action manageable. But it became mandatory for performers to grasp as many wildly waving hands as possible, and many waded into the crowd finding the opportunity for open communion with their fans irresistible.

The audience was willing to accept and encourage quality entertainment of any type. "That's one thing about the Apollo," said comedian Scoey Mitchlll in my book. "If you were doing something good -- I mean you could be an opera singer and come in the Apollo, and though they may not really understand the fact that you're singing in Italian, if you were singing good, they'd let you know it."

This unique compassion and genuine feeling kept top performers coming back to the Apollo even as more lucrative places opened up to them. "I played the Apollo long after I needed to, basically because there was no audience like the Apollo's," said Nancy Wilson. "I went back and stood out there one night. I finished the show and took my bow. When I stood up, people were rushing the stage. It was the warmest and most beautiful feeling I've ever had. There is just no way to describe how they embraced you at the Apollo if they loved you. They don't make them like that anymore." Perhaps Billie Holiday expressed it best when she wrote in her autobiography: "There's nothing like an audience at the Apollo. They didn't ask me what my style was, who I was, where I'd come from, who influenced me, or anything. They just broke the house up."

Ted Fox is the author of Showtime at the Apollo: The Story of Harlem's World Famous Theater, the definitive history of the Apollo which has just been published as a Kindle ebook: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00HRXKTU4. He is also the author of In The Groove a collection of interviews with men who have shaped the music industry. He produces and manages Grammy-winner Buckwheat Zydeco and lives in upstate New York. You can read more about Showtime at the Apollo and get Apollo news on Facebook and Twitter, and at Apollobook.com.