urban theatre circuit, popularly known as the Chitlin Circuit, stretched
across the United States.
I’ll name some of these theatres. There was the Apollo Theatre in New
York City’s Harlem where I spent a memorable evening, the Regal Theatre
in Chicago, The Howard Theatre in Washington. D.C., The Uptown Theatre
in Philadelphia, The Royal Theatre in Baltimore and the Fox Theatre in
These venues were very special. When blues and what not moved out of the
country and into the city it became a different kind of music. African
American entertainers, comedians and musicians played this circuit to
great effect. Audience participation was a given. These were people that
appreciated their musicians and told them so in more ways than one. The
Chitlin circuit was the starting place for acts like Cab Calloway, Pearl
Bailey, Ike and Tina Turner, Patti LaBelle, Louis Jordan, Fats Waller,
Etta James, Nat King Cole - and more - Gatemouth Brown, W.C. Handy, Louis
Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, The Jackson Five. The list goes
on and on and on.
Movie houses, back in the day, had elaborate prosceniums, gold trim and
fancy double curtains. These were palaces of entertainment.
There was a special item at the Apollo Theatre in New York City’s Harlem.
This was a round platform which was part of centre stage. This platform
could be lowered and performers dressed in their stage attire could step
on to this platform down beneath the stage, invisible to the audience,
and slowly rise up through the stage - the head, then the shoulders, then
the rest of them would come into audience view. In this day of rock shows
and special effects this is maybe not such a big deal but it was a very
big deal back then. To see a headline performer coming up through the
stage that way was an amazing thing.
These were the acts that I caught when I went to the Apollo. Red Foxx,
Pigmeat Markham (famous for his courtroom parody “Here come de Judge”),
and Tito Puente. Now, you might not think that Tito Puente belonged in
such a venue but he was from the ‘hood’, from Spanish Harlem. He was known
and respected for his wonderful drumming and his band.
Ruth Brown came tripping out on to the stage in a gold lamé gown
so tight around her legs and feet that looked like a mermaid she could
could barley tippy-toe, waddle up the the microphone but once she was
up there and started singing
“Mama he treats your daughter mean.....”
everybody knew the song. Everybody was with her.
Then Pigmeat Markham came on and did his “Here come de Judge” routine.
There were screams and roars of laughter because these people had been
through the court system, so seeing it parodied on stage, with black folks
playing judges and cops and so forth, was just a real hoot.
Tito Puente came on. Tito was a native of Spanish Harlem in New York,
so he was from the ‘hood’, as it were. The audience liked his music just
as well because, golly, it had the rhythm, it had the beat. So, they were
with it. They were really, really with it.
Now, if you didn’t perform up to standard and there was a very high standard,
you could be in a mess of trouble, particularly on open stage night. There
was a guy with a long waist high hook who would come out from the wings.
I may be remembering this from another performance. It might have been
a clown-like figure with a noise maker. Performers was were not up to
audience specifications would try to duck the hook or noisemaker and eventually
it would haul or drive them still gamely singing off the stage into the
wings. You don’t really find that sort of thing in, say, a polite folk
Very much a part of the show at the Apollo, or in any of these venues,
was the audience. You get a very special kind of audience reaction when
you’ve got common culture. The entertainers played to this commonality
and told jokes about sorghum and blue gums and what have you and got the
audience going along with them.
Urbanized country folks were part of the audience. Here was a place where
the audience was on fire to hear their own people performing and these
were often class acts that later on became very, very famous.
The audience knew these performers were good and knew they were theirs,
their own people on stage. The audience was on top of everything that
happened on stage - every reference, every musical note, they knew the
language that was being spoken. It was theirs and they dug it!
In a white world, before the civil rights movement took hold, you could
step into a theatre and hear your talk, your people talking about things
that concerned you. Making fun of it. Making music out of it. The rhythm
carried it and it was just total immersion in a vibrant culture.
People up here in Canada are really nice but, sometimes, they’re too polite.
Sometimes, the absolute best thing to do is to get down and dirty with
that performer. Yell when you like it and say when you don’t and maybe
even get out the hook. Both audience and performer will be better for