The Apollo Theater has stood in the heart of Harlem, New York, as the single most important African-American theater for more than half a century, presenting major stars and launching the careers of previously unknown amateur musicians, dancers, and comics.
Located at 253 West 125th Street, the Apollo opened in 1913 as Hurtig and Seamon's Music Hall, presenting white vaudeville and burlesque theater to white audiences. As burlesque routines lost popularity and became incorporated into the downtown musical comedy revues, the theater was rechristened the Apollo by Sidney Cohen, who bought it in 1933. The inaugural show, billed as "Jazz à la Carte" and held on January 26, 1934, featured a film and several types of acts, including the Benny Carter Orchestra.
Under the direction of Frank Schiffman, the Apollo soon became famous for presenting top performers in lavish costumes on often exotic stage settings in shows hosted by Ralph Cooper. The 1,600-seat auditorium hosted thirty shows each week and was the site of regular live broadcasts on twenty-one radio stations across the country. The greatest jazz musicians of the era performed at the Apollo, including the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Lionel Hampton's band, and Louis Jordan. Perhaps the most famous of the Apollo's offerings was its amateur hour, held every Wednesday night from 11:00 P.M. until midnight, when the performances of seven or eight contestants would be judged by audience response. Those who failed to earn the audience's approval were booed offstage in mid-performance, but winners, including Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Pearl Bailey, were sometimes rewarded with recording and performance contracts. The thrilling experience of concerts at the Apollo during this period is captured on a recording of jazz broadcasts made at the Apollo in the mid-1940s, Live at the Apollo (1985), including performances by the Count Basie Orchestra, the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, and Marjorie Cooper, a singer who failed to gain the amateur hour audience's approval.
With the demise of the swing era, many of New York's grand black theaters and nightclubs closed, but the Apollo remained popular by embracing the new sounds of rhythm and blues. By the mid-1950s the Apollo regularly featured rhythm and blues revues, as well as gospel stars and comedians such as Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham. With the ascendance of soul music in the 1960s, the theater presented sold-out runs by soul singers such as James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Jackie Wilson and popular shows by Dionne Warwick, the Jackson 5, Gladys Knight, and Funkadelic. Brown's album Live at the Apollo (1963) captured not only one of the greatest performances by the "Godfather of Soul" but the extraordinary fervor of which the discerning Apollo audience was capable.
By the mid-1970s black entertainers had gained access to better-paying stadium and arena venues, and the theater could no longer afford to draw top acts. The Apollo fell on hard times, presenting only a few dozen shows per year, and closed its doors in 1977. In 1981 an investment group headed by Percy Sutton bought the theater out of bankruptcy for $225,000. Despite being declared a national historic landmark in 1983, the reinstatement of amateur hour in 1985, and a guarantee of its mortgage by New York State, the theater failed to succeed. In 1988 it underwent a $20 million renovation, but it continued to lose money—$2 million a year until 1991, when it was taken over by a nonprofit organization led by Leon Denmark and Congressman Charles Rangel. Since that time, despite continued financial losses and complaints by city officials about its administration, the Apollo has led the revitalization of 125th Street by once again presenting both the stars and unknowns of black popular music, from B. B. King to Luther Vandross, hip-hop, and rap shows.
In 2001 the Apollo began a huge expansion and restoration. New lighting and sound systems have been installed as part of the renovations, which have been funded in part through proceeds from celebrity benefit shows.
Cooper, Ralph, with Steve Dougherty. Amateur Night at the Apollo. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
Fox, Ted. Showtime at the Apollo. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1983.
Schiffman, Jack. Uptown: The Story of Harlem's Apollo Theater. New York: Cowles, 1971.
Wolk, Douglas. Live at the Apollo. New York: Continuum, 2004.
ira berger (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005