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The Apollo Theater: Heart & Soul of Harlem

By: Kelly Taggart
Photos: Allen Carrasco
& The Apollo Theater Foundation, Shahar Azran

The Apollo Theater in New York City is one of the oldest and most famous music halls in the United States, and the most celebrated theater’s associated almost exclusively with African-American performers. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and was the home of Showtime at the Apollo, a nationally syndicated television variety show consisting of new talent. A cultural icon, the Apollo has had significant impact on the development of American culture and its popularity around the world.

The Apollo Creation of a Legend

Built in 1914, the entertainment venue known as the Apollo Theater was initially called Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theatre. Owned by Sidney Cohen, the theater presented white singers and light entertainment. A local campaign, led by newly elected Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, against burlesque closed the theatre in 1933. A year later the theater reopened as the 125th Street Apollo Theatre. Owned by Cohen and managed by Morris Sussman., they changed the format of the shows to variety revues and redirected their marketing attention to the growing African-American community in Harlem.

From 1935 to 1979, the historic landmark changed hands two more times. In 1935 Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher took over the Theater. Under this ownership the theater presented 31 shows per week: four per day, plus extra shows on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.

The Schiffman and Brecher families would operate the Apollo Theater until the late 1970’s. In 1981, Percy Sutton, a prominent lawyer, politician, media and technology executive and a group of private investors purchased the Apollo. Under Sutton’s ownership, the Theater was equipped with a recording and television studio.

Based on its cultural significance and architecture, the Apollo Theater received state and city landmark designation in 1983 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1991, Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc., was established as not-for-profit organization to manage, fund and oversee programming for the theater. Under the guidance of a Board of Directors, today the Apollo boasts a range of new programs serving the community and complementing its historic role through performing arts, education, and community outreach programs.

Amateur Night at the Apollo

Amateur Night at the Apollo has played a major role in cultivating artists, and in the emergence of innovative musical genres including jazz, swing, bebop, R&B, gospel, blues, soul and hip-hop. Amateur Night helped shape the popular vocal and performance tastes of many generations of Americans of every color.

Ralph Cooper, an accomplished emcee, actor and dancer, launched the Wednesday Amateur Night at Sidney Cohen and Morris Sussman’s 125th Street Apollo Theatre in 1934. Cooper’s Amateur Night in Harlem radio shows were broadcast live and carried on a national network of 21 stations. Amateur Night at the Apollo quickly became the leading showcase for many new, young, and talented performers such as a 15-year-old Ella Fitzgerald, who went on to become one of the first Amateur Night winners. From its notoriously tough audience to the magic of the Tree of Hope, the Amateur Night story is the stuff that legends are made of - literally.  Amateur Night has been the launching pad for some of the world’s greatest artists including Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five and Lauryn Hill. Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis, Jr., James Brown, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, Gladys Knight, Luther Vandross, D’Angelo, and countless others also began their road to stardom on the Apollo’s stage.

Long before Ted Mack and the Amateur Hour and American Idol, Amateur Night at the Apollo was, and continues to be, a primary source for discovering new talent and spotlighting up-and-coming artists, all hoping that the hallowed stage and the approval of the Apollo audience will launch their careers in the entertainment world.

The Tree of Hope

The legend and tradition of The Tree of Hope began outside the famous Harlem Lafayette Theatre once located between 131st and 132nd Streets on Seventh Avenue, known as the Boulevard of Dreams. Harlem’s then top show biz venue featuring African-American talent, the Lafayette soon became the scene for aspiring actors, dancers and performers to gather. The Tree of Hope stood across from the Lafayette Theatre and performers believed it to bring good luck to those who stood beneath its branches. It symbolized the promise that Harlem held for millions of aspiring African-Americans. In 1934, around the time the Apollo Theater  first launched Amateur Night, the City of New York widened Seventh Avenue and the trees that had once lined the Boulevard of Dreams had to be removed. One of the doomed trees was the famous Harlem landmark, The Tree of Hope. To this day, a large section of the trunk of this very tree stands proudly on the Apollo stage and every Wednesday night, hopeful performers touch the tree in the hope they can share in the good fortune of so many past performers.

Take a Tour

Apollo historic tours connect the past, the present and the future of the legendary venue, revealing the significant contributions of African-Americans and Latinos to the birth of global popular culture. The tours are educational, informative, entertaining, and inspiring, as resident historian and official tour guide, Billy Mitchell, discloses little known facts about the theater and the legendary people who performed there. “There is so much history in this place,” says the man known as Mr. Apollo as he points out the Hall of Fame imagery gracing the walls of the theater. “There is this amazing wall with pictures of people, so many of whom started their careers here at the Apollo and went on to become legends.” He continues, describing the famed Amateur Night, “The audience is the judge of every performance. They are brutally honest and very diverse, but they all want the same thing…to see a great performance!”

“The motto of the show is Be Good or Be Gone. If you give it to them, they’re gonna give it to you. If they like you, they will applaud you. If they don’t, they will boo you…but it’s all in fun!”

Catching a Show

Whether you want to cheer with the audience or audition to step up to the mic, the tradition of Amateur Night continues every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. from March through November.

Apollo Theater
253 West 125th Street
New York, NY 10027
(212) 531-5300

Photos: Allen Carrasco, The Apollo Theater Foundation, Shahar Azran

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Posted in December 2012, Featured, Travel

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