The Apollo at 90: Harlem legend Leslie Uggams recalls doing ‘29 shows a week’ at the iconic theater

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When a 9-year-old Leslie Uggams made her debut astatine Harlem’s historical Apollo Theater successful 1952, she instantly won complete nan notoriously reliable crowd arsenic nan “extra added attraction” connected a measure pinch jazz awesome Louis Armstrong arsenic headliner.

“It was terrific … They loved me,” Uggams, now 81, told The Post astir her 20-minute act, which included singing, tap-dancing and impressions. “I retrieve 1 of nan songs was ‘When You’re Smiling.’ And different opus was ‘Exactly Like You.’ And besides ‘On nan Sunny Side of nan Street.’ ”

The Harlem autochthonal — who earned her coveted spot connected nan Apollo shape by many times winning a power title — wasn’t moreover tense astir not getting nan section emotion erstwhile she was known arsenic “Little Leslie Uggams.”

“I learned a batch astir stamina,” said Leslie Uggams astir doing 29 shows a week astatine nan legendary Apollo Theater. WireImage

“I was a ham,” she said pinch a laugh. “I loved singing and performing. So, you know, I wasn’t really awkward erstwhile I came out.”

Seventy-two years later, Uggams — a Tony-winning prima of shape and screen, from nan groundbreaking ’70s miniseries “Roots” to nan blockbuster “Deadpool” movie franchise — has earned her velvet spot arsenic an Apollo fable arsenic nan iconic institution celebrates its 90th anniversary.

Nine decades aft nan landmark theatre opened connected Jan. 26, 1934 — pinch a “Jazz a La Carte” capacity featuring vocalist Aida Ward, Benny Carter and His Orchestra, and early Amateur Night emcee Ralph Cooper — nan Apollo will salute 90 years of soul-lifting showtimes pinch its annual outpouring benefit connected Tuesday night. 

Babyface — who connected Monday joined nan likes of Little Richard, James Brown and Aretha Franklin pinch his induction into nan Apollo Walk of Fame — will beryllium honored pinch nan inaugural Legacy Award. Meanwhile, Usher — basking disconnected his Super Bowl halftime performance successful February — will person nan 2024 Icon Award. “American Idol” victor Jordin Sparks, New Edition’s Johnny Gill and “The Wiz” character Avery Brooks will beryllium among nan performers raising money for the vaunted venue, which became a nonprofit statement successful 1992.

“It feels very inspired … nan truth that you tin look backmost complete 9 decades and conscionable admit nan communicative and history and nan effect of nan artists and nan voices connected nan full world,” said Michelle Ebanks, nan Apollo’s president and CEO. 

“I ever show group nan Apollo was schoolhouse for me,” said Leslie Uggams, who, while attending nan Dining pinch nan Divas arena astatine nan theatre successful 2011, posed by her spot successful nan lobby mural (far right, supra choir astatine bottom). WireImage

“There are fewer institutions that tin talk astir that level of world influence, that grade of being a taste designer for us.”

While nan effect of nan Apollo has stretched acold beyond 125th Street crossed nan world, it has been a mecca — a location — for African-American artists since its opening successful nan location that was antecedently a burlesque theater.

As nan location for artists specified arsenic James Brown, nan Apollo Theater has had a world effect that fewer venues tin match.

Building upon nan Harlem Renaissance, it was a seismic taste displacement “to unfastened up nan shape for entree to African-Americans, to performers who couldn’t play anyplace else, execute anyplace else,” said Ebanks. “You person Amateur Night discovering Ella Fitzgerald. And past you spell into nan 50s, wherever you person nan large bands … nan celebrated artists specified arsenic Billy Eckstine, Dinah Washington, Johnny Mathis. You move connected to different era, you person Gladys Knight, Jimi Hendrix, the Jackson 5.”

Uggams says that it was nan eventual show-biz acquisition watching — and being mentored by — her elder masters arsenic she performed astatine nan Apollo from ages 9 to 16. “There was a small spot successful nan backstage area wherever I could guidelines and watch each show,” she said. “I ever show group nan Apollo was schoolhouse for me. I learned a batch moving pinch awesome people.”

Louis Armstrong “was really for illustration my pops,” said Leslie Uggams. “He was very generous to my mom and I.” Courtesy Apollo Theater Archives

And those typical relationships successful nan Apollo family extended from nan master to nan personal. “Louis Armstrong was really for illustration my pops. He was very generous to my mom and I,” Uggams recalled. 

“Ella Fitzgerald was wonderful, perfectly wonderful,” she added. “I was successful and retired of her dressing room. There was ever a batch of food, because she had relatives that would always bring you thing … And I worked pinch her during nan summer, truthful I would spell extracurricular and play hopscotch, and she’d bring her chair and beryllium retired location to watch me.

Of Ella Fitzgerald, Uggams said, “I would spell extracurricular and play hopscotch, and she’d bring her chair and … watch me”

“Dinah Washington — she was different 1 that took maine nether her helping and everything,” she continued. “She was very, very typical arsenic well.”

But possibly Uggams’ biggest instruction learned astatine nan Apollo was each astir activity ethic.

“I mean, we did 29 shows a week, truthful you sewage a batch of experience,” she said. “We did 5 shows connected Sundays, and we started later than nan different [days] because of church. The Apollo wouldn’t unfastened till religion was over, and past we’d cram successful each these shows. So I learned a batch astir stamina arsenic well.”


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