WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels with The WPA State Guides: You Can Go Home Again: The Apollo Theatre, Harlem, New York City

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

Apollo Theatre

“At 253 West 125th Street, near Eighth Avenue, is the Apollo Theatre, known as Harlem’s “opera house.” Opened in 1913, … in 1934 it [began] to present weekly all-Negro revues, with outstanding dance orchestras.”

New York City Guide, p.259.

The Guide’s brief description of the Apollo Theatre is understandable. Published in 1939, only five years after the Apollo began to feature Black musicians, the Guide’s writers could not have foreseen the outsize importance, either to Harlem, or to the history of 20th century music, that the Apollo was shortly to assume. By 1940, the Apollo became the premier venue for blues, jazz, swing, gospel, rhythm, and blues, and soul musicians—and it remains an icon even today.

An astonishing number of Black musicians got their start at the Apollo by daring to appear on Wednesday’s “Amateur Nights.” The audience for Amateur Nights was highly sophisticated and critical. If you were no good, their boos would prompt an “executioner” to sweep you off the stage with his broom. If you were particularly bad, the executioner might chase you off the stage with a cap pistol, accompanied by the sound of a police siren.

To win on Amateur Night, on the other hand, was pretty much a guarantee of stardom. Musicians who got their start at Amateur Night at the Apollo include Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Sam Cooke, B.B. King, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Wilson Pickett, Michael Jackson, and Aretha Franklin.

When I was in college at Barnard in the late sixties, we were just 10 blocks away. This was the era of James Brown, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Wilson Pickett, Stevie Wonder and “the Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin.

On many summer nights, I walked uptown to the Apollo to see them perform. I heard Aretha sing new song, “Respect” at the Apollo in July,1967. It was magical. The theatre is large, but not overly so and the seats were inexpensive. You felt a connection with the singers.

Wednesday concerts began early in the evening and they lasted for hours. The performers never phoned it in; they sang (and danced) their hearts out. Concerts the Apollo were the soundtrack of my college years.

Just last Sunday, I dropped by to see The Apollo again. In most respects, it hasn’t changed at all. The marquee is exactly the same as it was in 1967. So is the lobby. One quite moving addition is the array of brass plaques in the sidewalk out front. Most of those memorialized were just starting out when I saw them perform there; now almost all are deceased.

On a Sunday morning, all was quiet. The theatre itself was closed but the lobby was open. Inside, a Motown song track was playing. Stevie Wonder was singing “You Are the Sunshine of my Life” and I sang along with him. The two gift shop salespersons joined in and we finished the song together. “Her voice isn’t half bad,” one of them commented to the other, and we all laughed.

Throughout the time that I was there, a steady stream of visitors came to pay their respects. Like me, they were eager to visit such an important landmark in the community and to relive the scenes of their youth.

September, 2021