Cole & Ella

Cole Porter’s Anything Goes opened on Broadway on this day in 1934. It was an immediate and long-running hit, and heaped fame upon both Porter and his star, Ethel Merman. It also entered Broadway legend in the category of flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants miracles, given that the second act was written while the actors were rehearsing the first, and the title song was a last-minute improvisation. With the clock ticking at rehearsals, one of the actors (in some versions, a producer) said he’d do whatever asked, as “anything goes”; Porter immediately declared that he’d found his title and rushed off to write one of his most hummable tunes:

When Grandmammas whose age is eighty
In nightclubs are getting matey
With gigolos,
Anything goes…

On the same evening as the Anything Goes premiere, at a very different New York venue, another musical legend got started. Seventeen-year-old Ella Fitzgerald, then an orphan and a reform school runaway, won the weekly Amateur Night competition at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Apart from the $25 prize, Fitzgerald got a week-long engagement at the Apollo and the confidence to sing in other amateur competitions; soon she was singing for Chick Webb and was paroled into his care. When Webb died in 1939, his band became “Ella and Her Famous Orchestra.”

Amateur Night at the Apollo, a tradition now in its seventy-eighth year, helped to start many careers — including that of Sarah Vaughan, who won in 1943, giving her the chance to open for Fitzgerald, back at the Apollo as the headline show. But if “Amateur Night could transform a life in ways that hitting the number or awaiting the intervention of Father Divine could not,” the Apollo itself was the real star, or beacon:

At a minimum, the black audiences found a respite, an oasis that allowed them to escape the realities of segregation and limited economic opportunities. Yet the Apollo audiences also experienced glimpses of a brave new world where the racial norms of the day were punctured by the beauty of a Billie Holiday song, challenged by the sharp comic wit of Moms Mobley or Dick Gregory, and overcome by the rhythmic movement of dancers like Cholly Atkins and Honi Coles. Once the doors were closed, as my relatives claimed, “we got to be who we are and maybe who we want to be.”

These comments are from an essay by Lonnie G. Bunch III, Director of the National African American Museum of History and Culture, published in Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.