Harlem as it never was
New York — "There are three rules for success in show business," said Frank Schiffman, the late owner of New York's Apollo Theater in Harlem. "Unfortunately," he confided, "nobody knows what they are. . . ."
Well, "Uptown" (NBC, Friday, 9-11 p.m., check local listings) isn't about to tell you.
It doesn't delve very much deeper than that line. "Uptown" is a simple-minded, complexly organized, but entertainingly told tale of the history of the famed Apollo Theater. A rather restrained Flip Wilson, who is supposed, in the script by Harry Crane and Marty Russell from a book by Schiffman's son, to represent "every great comic who ever played the Apollo," has to say rather condescendingly about Mr. Schiffman, a white: "He was a man out of his territory but never out of his league."
Played with charm and believability by ex-vaudevillian Jack Albertson, Schiffman gets to do a soft-shoe routine, too, despite his lack of what the special implies is "ethnic rhythm." Besides Mr. Albertson, who is permitted to represent only Mr. Schiffman, there is Natalie Cole, representing "every great lady of song." Flip, of course, represents the overall category of black comics, while Nipsy Russell represents the comics of social comment. Lou Rawls represents the black male singers, while Ben Vereen represents both dancers and newcomers to showbiz.
"Uptown," produced by Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion, with Hemion also directing, is a fantastic hodge- podge, a black potpourri peppered with an interloping white now and then -- such as Doc Severinsen, on temporary leave from "The Johnny Carson Show," doing a rather inadequate fill-in job for Louis Armstrong.
For some of the time, this show is confusing even as it is amusing, because it skips from the current to the past, reminiscing about such top old-timers as Moms Mabley and Bill Robinson, showing just a snippet of their actual performances and then allowing other contemporary performers to imitate their style, reperform their material, or simply perform in their own style. This is the case especially with the Ink Spots and the Temptations. "Uptown" would have done much better if it had decided early in the show to be pure entertainment rather than masquerade as part documentary.
But it is definitely carping to complain about two hours of the aforementioned stars as well as Cab Calloway, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, etc. If there is too much of Gladys Knight, well everybody can't be Ella Fitzgerald . . . even in this mixture of fantasy and reality, which somehow turns Harlem into a neat and sanitized Hollywood set a la Vincente Minnelli. It is Harlem as seen from a chauffeured 1920s Rolls with rosecolored windshields.
"Uptown" will make most viewers nostalgic for a Harlem they probably never knew. It follows the recent New York theater pattern of looking longingly at black entertainers in such shows as "Eubie!" "Ain't Misbehavin'," and "One Mo' Time." But whereas some of these shows managed to find the originals and place them back in the spotlight to perform, this electronic version is too often content to show a 30-second film clip and a second-best impersonation.
"Uptown" at least reminds us of the heritage of black performance which belongs to all of America, East and West, downtown as well as uptown. It is just too bad that its psychological blackface -- and sometimes reverse blackface -- reveals itself too often.