Chuck Arnold

Chuck Arnold


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

When a 9-year-old Leslie Uggams made her debut at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater in 1952, she instantly won over the notoriously tough crowd as the “extra added attraction” on a bill with jazz great Louis Armstrong as headliner.

“It was terrific … They loved me,” Uggams, now 81, told The Post about her 20-minute act, which included singing, tap-dancing and impressions. “I remember one of the songs was ‘When You’re Smiling.’ And another song was ‘Exactly Like You.’ And also ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street.’ ”

The Harlem native — who earned her coveted spot on the Apollo stage by repeatedly winning a radio contest — wasn’t even nervous about not getting the local love when she was known as “Little Leslie Uggams.”

“I learned a lot about stamina,” said Leslie Uggams about doing 29 shows a week at the legendary Apollo Theater. WireImage

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

Seventy-two years later, Uggams — a Tony-winning star of stage and screen, from the groundbreaking ’70s miniseries “Roots” to the blockbuster “Deadpool” movie franchise — has earned her velvet seat as an Apollo legend as the iconic institution celebrates its 90th anniversary.

Nine decades after the landmark theater opened on Jan. 26, 1934 — with a “Jazz a La Carte” performance featuring singer Aida Ward, Benny Carter and His Orchestra, and future “Amateur Night” emcee Ralph Cooper — the Apollo will salute 90 years of soul-lifting showtimes with its annual spring benefit on Tuesday night. 

Babyface — who on Monday joined the likes of Little Richard, James Brown and Aretha Franklin with his induction into the Apollo Walk of Fame — will be honored with the inaugural Legacy Award. Meanwhile, Usher — hot off his Super Bowl halftime performance in February — will receive the 2024 Icon Award. “American Idol” winner Jordin Sparks, New Edition’s Johnny Gill and “The Wiz” actor Avery Brooks will be among the performers raising money for the vaunted venue, which became a nonprofit organization in 1992.

“It feels very inspired … the fact that you can look back over nine decades and just appreciate the story and history and the impact of the artists and the voices on the entire world,” said Michelle Ebanks, the Apollo’s president and CEO. 

“I always tell people the Apollo was school for me,” said Leslie Uggams, who, while attending the Dining With the Divas event at the theater in 2011, posed by her place in the lobby mural (far right, above choir). WireImage

“There are few institutions that can talk about that level of global influence, that degree of being a cultural architect for us.”

While the impact of the Apollo has stretched across the world, far beyond 125th Street, it has been a mecca — a home — for African American artists since its opening in the location that was previously a burlesque theater.

As the home for artists such as James Brown, the Apollo Theater has had a global impact that few venues can match.

Building upon the Harlem Renaissance, it was a seismic cultural shift “to open up the stage for access to African Americans, to performers who couldn’t play anywhere else, perform anywhere else,” said Ebanks. “You have ‘Amateur Night’ discovering Ella Fitzgerald. And then you go into the ’50s, where you have the big bands … the popular artists such as Billy Eckstine, Dinah Washington, Johnny Mathis. You move on to another era, you have Gladys Knight, Jimi Hendrix, the Jackson 5.”

Uggams says that it was the ultimate showbiz education watching — and being mentored by — her elder masters as she performed at the Apollo from ages 9 to 16. “There was a little place in the backstage area where I could stand and watch every show,” she said. “I always tell people the Apollo was school for me. I learned a lot working with great people.”

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

And those special relationships in the Apollo family extended from the professional to the personal. “Louis Armstrong was really like my pops. He was very generous to my mom and I,” Uggams recalled. 

Ella Fitzgerald was wonderful, absolutely wonderful,” she added. “I was in and out of her dressing room. There was always a lot of food, because she had relatives that would always bring you something … And I worked with her during the summer, so I would go outside and play hopscotch, and she’d bring her chair and sit out there to watch me.

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

“Dinah Washington — she was another one that took me under her wing and everything,” Uggams continued. “She was very, very special as well.”

But perhaps Uggams’ biggest lesson learned at the Apollo was all about work ethic.

“I mean, we did 29 shows a week, so you got a lot of experience,” she said. “We did five shows on Sundays, and we started later than the other [days] because of church. The Apollo wouldn’t open till church was over, and then we’d cram in all these shows. So I learned a lot about stamina as well.”