In 1934, the 125th Street Apollo Theater opened, presenting shows featuring the great band leaders and acts of the day: Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford, Pigmeat Markham, Butterbeans & Susie, the Inkspots -- and a chorus line of 16 of the most beautiful dancers in New York. Over the stage door a sign was painted, “Through these portals pass the most beautiful girls in Harlem.” They were the glue that held the shows together. While the headliners came and went, the chorus line rehearsed a new show each week, working 15 hour days, 7 days every week. The first show went up at 11 a.m., and when the curtain came down at night, the chorus line rehearsed for another 2-3 hours preparing the new show, often until 2:00 am. They grabbed sleep on rented cots or chairs pushed together. 15 hours a day. 7 days a week. No vacation, no sick days, when you weren't there you lost your job. Until February 23, 1940.
It is little known that these chorus line dancers led the historic first strike by African American performers. On a snowy Saturday night, instead of taking "places" for the 7pm show, the Apollo’s overworked line of chorus girls, walked out in a bid for higher wages, leading the historic first strike by African American musical artists. Soon the other entertainers followed them out the door. The “girls” won, and the American Guild of Variety Artists was successfully established for black and white performers nationwide. The strike lasted one day only, when owner Frank Schiffman settled with the union. The dancer's pay was raised from $25 to $30 a week, with $5 extra for solo work, and rehearsal was limited to 14 hours a week. (See Bertye Lou Wood at right in the news photo. Click news articles for larger, downloadable views.)