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Of all the memorabilia present in “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” the Smithsonian’s exhibit on Harlem’s cultural mainstay the Apollo Theater, the must-see items aren’t Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, Michael Jackson’s fedora, a trio of flowery dresses once worn by the Supremes, or even a jumpsuit belonging to James Brown with the word sex written in rhinestones across the waist—though that outfit, in particular, is a sight to behold. Throughout the theater’s 75 years of shaping pop culture and African-American history, the most fascinating bit of memorabilia is a collection of notecards on which the theater’s owner would take brutally honest notes on the talent. Fats Domino,he wrote, had an “excellent though unexciting group” but was “overpaid—salary should be about $5,000.” As for Dionne Warwick: “Inclined to talk too much.” Beyond musical keepsakes such as these, the exhibit explains the theater’s role in political and social movements of the 20th century, set to some soulful tunes.
THE EXHIBITION IS ON VIEW 10 A.M. TO 5:30 P.M. DAILY AT THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY, 1300 CONSTITUTION AVE. NW. FREE. (202) 633-1000.