The Apollo Theatre

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The Apollo Theatre is one of the greatest living relics of New York City’s musical culture. Open since 1914, the Apollo was reborn in 1983 as a completely remodeled, live entertainment venue that has played host to more famous musical and comedy acts, especially among the African American community. A visit to the Apollo is a lesson in the diverse culture of Harlem and New York overall.

History

The name Apollo actually comes from a dance hall and ballroom in operation during the American Civil War. At the time, The Apollo Hall was run by General Edward Ferrero. But when his lease on the original Apollo building ended in 1872, the intervening years left the Apollo an empty term until its rebirth at the dawn of the First World War.

It was at that time, in 1913/14 that a new building was constructed at the location of253 West 125th Street. Called Hurtig and Seamon’s New (Burlesque) Theater, this building was the beginning of a new era for the Apollo and the introduction of the theatre that we know and love today. Though the norms at the time prevented blacks from either attending or performing at American theatres, the location of this theatre would become significant.

When the Harlem Renaissance began in the years following WWI, the soon-to-be-Apollo became a central hub for arts and especially music in the predominantly black Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan. Plus, African American talent came at a cheaper cost. Therefore, when Fiorello Le Guardia began a campaign against burlesque which led to the closure of Hurtig and Seamon’s in 1934, the building was reopen as the 125th Street Apollo Theatre. Then run by Sydney Cohen and Morris Sussman, the theatre’s focus became variety shows aimed at the black population of Harlem. The theatre’s operations were subsequently taken over by Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher in 1935. The same team would maintain control over the Apollo until its temporary closure in the late 1970s.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Apollo fell into disrepair as a result of age and disinterest. However, it was purchased by Percy Sutton in 1981 and gradually began a rebuilding process which included getting the building on the register as a landmark in the City and State of New York. This led to the Apollo being purchased by the State of New York in 1991. It was then officially entered onto the National Register of Historic Places and solidified as an important and integral part of New York and America’s cultural history.

Even at its start, the Apollo began a tradition of promoting unknown talent that it still supports today. The famous Amateur Night at the Apollo began in 1935 and was initially hosted by Ralph Cooper. Amateur Night still runs every Wednesday and has been responsible for launching the careers of such large names in African American arts as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, Mariah Carrey and the Jackson 5 among many others. The Apollo Theatre was also home to Showtime at the Apollo, a television variety show which ran from 1987-2008.

Main Attraction

Nowadays there is more to see than ever at the Apollo Theatre. Major events include concerts from some of the biggest names in comedy and music. African Americans especially still routinely performed at the Apollo. Amateur Night is also still going strong every Wednesday at 7:30. There are also daily tours of the theatre which take visitors through the storied halls of the Apollo and the history of the musicians that made it famous. This includes the Jazz Shrines of the theatre, historical tours, and educational programs like camps and lecture series.

Why It’s a Must-See

Going to the Apollo is a truly unique New York experience. This theatre has launched more names from unknown to famous than any other place in New York other than the Johnny Carson Show. Among black performers, it is one of the most storied artistic areas in the world. Taking a tour of the Apollo, which is often included on tourist passes or in other Harlem Walking tours, allows visitors to get the real picture of the importance of this theatre in the history of American art. However attending a show or Amateur Night at the Apollo is the real way to get in on the history of this amazing venue that has stood as a bastion for talent among the African American community and indeed the whole population.