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'Showtime at the Apollo' offers a graphic novel history of the storied Harlem venue

Author Ted Fox turned his 1983 book into a comic with the help of artist James Otis Smith.

James Brown performs at the Apollo Theater, as

James Brown performs at the Apollo Theater, as seen in the "Showtime at the Apollo: The Epic Tale of Harlem’s Legendary Theater" written by Ted Fox and illustrated by James Otis Smith. Photo Credit: Abrams ComicArts

It’s hard to contain the story of the fabled Apollo Theater in just one book.

Author Ted Fox said he was excited at the chance to transform his acclaimed 1983 tome about the historic venue into a new graphic novel: “Showtime at the Apollo: The Epic Tale of Harlem’s Legendary Theater.”

“This was an opportunity to truly update it and present it in a way that is appealing to a contemporary audience,” Fox told amNewYork. “It was the most fun I ever had doing a creative project.” 

Fox partnered with artist James Otis Smith whose vivid illustrations bring the interwoven stories about the Apollo to life.

“That’s what James did,” Fox said. “Writing the manuscript was really like writing a screenplay and his art was a lot like making music.”

Chronicling the history of the Apollo has been Fox’s passion project for almost 40 years. Its stage was graced by generations of African-American performers from Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to James Brown and Dionne Warwick.

Amateur night was captured in a long-running television show. And when Michael Jackson, Prince and Aretha Franklin died, fans flocked to the Apollo to collectively mourn and console each other.

It’s also the place where President Barack Obama campaigned and famously serenaded a crowd with his own version of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”

“People know the Apollo is a legendary place,” Fox said. “But do they know the story behind it? Do they know it has this mythology of its own? It’s really the struggle of the African-American community in America over the last century.

The back story of how Fox was able to interview so many legends for the book is a tale all its own, and included in the graphic novel.

It started with a visit to the declining theater in 1980 and a chance meeting with Francis “Doll” Thomas, who lived in an apartment above the theater. Fox then tracked down Dionne Warwick and was stunned when she answered the phone to her apartment in the Waldorf Towers.

She shrieked with delight after hearing he was writing a history of the Apollo and talked to him for three hours that same day. Warwick asked if he has spoken to “Sammy” yet and immediately connects him with Sammy Davis Jr.

“They were dying to tell this story and just thrilled someone was writing about it,” Fox said.

And people wanted the whole history, its rise and decline and rebirth, to be told.

He credits his daughter, O.K. Fox, for inspiring him to revisit the story as a graphic novel.

“It has that kind of inherent drama and that’s what a graphic novel should do,” Fox said. “Just tell an epic tale.”

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