Originally published in hardcover in 2019, Showtime at the Apollo: The Epic Tale of Harlem’s Legendary Theater by Ted Fox, with Illustrations by James Otis Smith, is the graphic adaptation of Fox’s original prose work, which was first published in 1983. A trade paperback edition of the graphic adaptation will be released by Abrams ComicArts February 25.
The original prose book (subtitled The Story of Harlem’s World Famous Theater to distinguish it from the graphic work) is the definitive history of Harlem’s great music and entertainment venue. The book is an authoritative documentation of the landmark theater’s history beginning in the 1930s, highlighting its presentation of such performers as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Ella Fitzgerald, on through every era of African-American entertainment from jazz, blues, gospel, and R&B, right up until the hip hop generation of today. The book also features the political and social events that shaped those artists, as well as the venue, and highlights the impact of black artists on the shape of American popular culture in the 20th century.
PW talked with Smith, the book’s comics artist and designer, about his role working with Fox to transform his landmark work on African-American history into a comparable work of graphic nonfiction.
PW: How were you recruited to adapt Showtime at The Apollo into a work of graphic nonfiction?
James Otis Smith: Cartoonist Dean Haspiel, who knows everybody, knows Ted Fox. So, Dean suggested me. Ted got together with Page Turner, a graphic novel and book packager, and they contacted me. They asked me to do a couple of sample pages and the rest is history.
The original prose work is a definitive, 328-page history of the Apollo and its influence on American pop culture. Can you describe how you worked with Fox to translate a landmark book into a graphic work of comparable depth?
Ted was pretty open. He didn’t have a particular vision of what the book should look like. He’s not a new writer but he’s a new comics writer. He was just excited to see it visualized at all. Also when he was working on the original prose book, he collected as much visual material as he could. Because the Apollo was in disuse at the time he started the book, a lot of the original posters, flyers and photos had been lost. In his original book from 1983 there are a lot of photographs you won’t see anyplace else. Many of the people he interviewed were open to giving him stuff at that time in 1980 when nobody cared about the Apollo. Ted wanted to pile on as much material [for the graphic adaptation] as he could, and I regret not being able to take advantage of all the stuff that he had.
In the beginning, a lot of the [process] was Ted plucking chunks of the book’s text out and giving them to me in a word doc and then I would pare that down [to create a script]. I wasn’t just drawing the book but I was also adapting it. Some writers are more specific about what they want on the page, but Ted was pretty open to my ideas. We met in person a few times and then talked on the phone a few times. And then after a certain point it was me plowing ahead on the pages, doing the drawings and getting notes back. He was always open to any clarification I needed.
While the book is a historical reference work, it also offers a dramatic narration of the people and events that make up the Apollo’s story presented across hundreds of images and lots of accompanying text. Can you tell us how you approached all this?
I should say that I had a lot of help. The layouts of the pages are all mine, but I also had assistants that would help me get the pages together and do some of the under-drawing. I would go back and draw and work on those. There are about 10-20 pages that I can say aren’t really mine and the people that worked on them are all named in the book.
One thing I can say is that I have a short attention span, and I get bored and I don’t want to draw the same thing twice. So part of the look of the book is that I know a lot of these musicians, they’re from different eras, and I wanted to reflect the variety of the talent at the Apollo and also give myself the leeway to be as expressive as possible. This book pushed me out of my comfort zone because I had to open up the pages to get all this information on the page. And I’m glad that happened. It gave me the impetus to be as creative and as expressive as the material warranted.
There’s a page in the book that’s set in the office of owner of the Apollo, Bobby Schiffman, and he’s talking to a group of great blues musicians. Did this scene actually happen or was this for narrative convenience?
In the beginning, this was a small point of contention between myself and Ted. If it was up to me, I would have compressed more things in this manner, which is more like doing a movie. All those people didn’t appear together in a room, but it’s the most expedient way to [depict it]. Ted really wanted the memories of the people he interviewed for this book to be transposed [into comics scenes] as accurately as I could. So most of what you see in the book is what actually happened according to the people who were there.
Are there pages or drawings that are really memorable for you?
There are panels that I like. But I say, half-jokingly, that I know I’m getting better as an artist the longer it takes me to hate something I’ve done. It’s hard to look at my drawings and not think of the things I wish I’d done differently. But on page 163 there’s an image of James Brown, and I really like that. And page 91 [a sequence featuring comedian Scoey Mitchell, actress Leslie Uggams, and singer Billie Holiday, that describes how the Apollo ushers controlled enthusiastic crowds]. I really like that one as well.
One thing: I had an idealized reader in my mind [while working on this book]. This ideal reader would be someone who had been at the Apollo, someone like Dionne Warwick, someone who would read this and say, ‘he got the life, he got the energy, that is what the dressing room at the Apollo looked like.’
How did the legend of the Apollo Theater figure in your own life? Did you know about the history of the Apollo when you took on this job?
I grew up on the Showtime at the Apollo TV show [a syndicated TV talent show produced by the Apollo Theater that broadcast from 1987 to 2008]. So I didn’t know the Apollo before it became a different kind of place, a place where, like, Paul McCartney, was playing there. I wasn’t familiar with the history of it. I was a little kid in 1980 when it was closed so I didn’t have a connection to it at all.
But one of the cool things about working on this book was that I’d be home, working on it and needed music to entertain myself. I’m drawing this page with Sammy Davis Jr. on it, so I’d pull up some music by him from YouTube to listen to. A lot of working on the book was learning about some of the other artists while I was drawing them, listening to their music, and learning about them while I’m reading the script. That’s one of the best things about working on a nonfiction project like this. You get to learn about the subject as you’re doing it.