Vivian Harris, the woman known as the ‘voice of the Apollo’ for her long association with the famous Harlem theatre.Harris’s voice introducing the artists from behind the curtain was a signature sound at the Apollo for two decades until the theatre began to employ a master of ceremonies in the mid-1950s, but Harris was also a dancer, singer and comedienne in her own right.
She was born in Harlem. Her father was a boxer, and later a customs inspector, and her mother worked as a maid for stars, including Lilian Russell. The lure rubbed off on her five daughters, and all but one eventually became involved in the business.
Vivian joined the Broadway production Shuffle Along in 1921, after completing high school. The show, created by ragtime pianist Eubie Blake and singer and lyricist Noble Sissle, was a landmark in black theatre, and cleared the way for a succession of successful black musicals on Broadway. She was a chorus girl in Runnin’ Wild, with music by James P. Johnson and lyrics by Cecil Mack, which introduced ‘The Charleston’ (both Harris and Mae Barnes performed the dance in the show) to audiences.
She danced in a number of other notable Broadway productions, and toured Europe with Lew Leslie’s revue, Blackbirds. In 1927, the Cotton Club hired Harris as part a new chorus line to work with the musical act they had just signed, the Duke Ellington Orchestra. It was to be the platform which launched Ellington’s career, and Harris would later introduce him many times at the Apollo.
The exotic floor show and feathery costumes became a famous attraction, albeit one open only to whites. The girls in the chorus were all conspicuously light-skinned, something which would cost Harris a role in the famous Amos ‘n’ Andy show, when she was felt to be insufficiently dark for the part.
She married one of Ellington’s musicians, trumpeter Louis Metcalf, during her time at the club, but the marriage did not last long, and she never married again. When Frank Schiffmann converted a burlesque house on 125th street in Harlem into the Apollo Theatre in 1935, Harris began her long stint as the voice of the Apollo.
She performed with most of the famous black comedy acts of the day, including Pigmeat Markham (she took part in his legendary ‘here comes de judge’ routine), Spider Bruce, Dusty Fletcher and Ralph Cooper.
Here she is with Pigmeat Markham and George Wiltshire at the Apollo:
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Although her role as announcer was eventually superceded, she remained at the Apollo until 1970, working in various backstage and administrative functions as well as performing. She is estimated to have made over 10,000 appearances at the theatre.
Harris died in Englewood, New Jersey, on Feb. 18, 2000, at age 97.