The Arts

Harlem’s Apollo Theater: Where Stars are Born and Music History is Made

November 30, 2016
Apollo Theater, Harlem, New York

The Apollo Theater marquis. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

The Apollo Theater – “Where Stars are Born and Legends are Made!”  That motto is no empty boast; the illustrious Harlem showplace is one of America’s most historic and important theaters. For more than eight decades the Apollo has showcased an astounding roster of African-American stars and launched many of their careers. Pioneers of jazz, swing, bebop, rhythm and blues, soul, funk, and hip-hop have played the Apollo. Performances on the Apollo stage have transformed American (and global) music and culture.

Apollo Theater, Harlem, New York

The Apollo’s illustrious past. Photo: Apollotheater.org

History of the Apollo Theater

The Apollo Theater opened in 1914 as “Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater.” It featured bawdy stage shows for a strictly whites-only audience.

After closing briefly, the theater reopened in 1934 as the “125th Street Apollo Theater.” It featured concerts that were open to black and white audiences but specifically programmed to attract Harlem’s African-American community. The shows were very popular from the start. The first year, actor and producer Ralph Cooper brought his radio talent competition to the theater, calling it “Amateur Night at the Apollo.” The first winner was a 15-year-old girl singer named… Ella Fitzgerald!

Over the years, the Apollo’s Amateur Night has launched the careers of Pearl Bailey, Sarah Vaughn, Ruth Brown, Dionne Warwick, James Brown, Gladys Knight, Jimi Hendrix, the Jackson Five, and Lauryn Hill.

Apollo Theater, Harlem, New York

Some of the legends who’ve played the Apollo, celebrated in the theater lobby. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Legends who’ve performed at the Apollo Theater

Music greats like Billie Holliday, Lena Horne, and the Count Basie Orchestra made their professional debuts at the Apollo.

Other legends who have played at the Apollo include Bessie Smith, Dinah Washington, Sammy Davis Jr., Josephine Baker, Nat “King” Cole, Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (in fact, they wrote the song “My Girl” backstage!), Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and Bob Marley.

The famed orchestras of Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, and Tito Puente have played at the Apollo Theater, and the theater’s “Blues Nights” have featured B.B. King, T-Bone Walker and Odetta. The house has also showcased jazz innovators like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Dizzie Gillespie, and Thelonius Monk.

Great dancers have taken the stage at the Apollo, too—including the Nicholas Brothers, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Gregory and Maurice Hines.  Comedians like Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, Red Foxx, Richard Pryor, and Chris Rock have brought down the house.

Apollo Theater, Harlem, New York

Amateur Night at the Apollo. Photo: Apollo Theater, Facebook

Tough times for the Apollo Theater

Despite its fame, by the early 1970s the Apollo suffered the same decay and devastation as its Harlem neighborhood. In 1976 it became a seedy movie theater.

Fortunately, the theater was purchased in 1981 by the Inner City Broadcasting Corporation, received landmark status, and was reopened for live entertainment in 1985.

The Apollo has since undergone extensive renovations  which continue today.

The theater, now run by the Apollo Theater Foundation, continues to be the nation’s most important venue for emerging and established African-American and Latino performers.

Apollo Theater, Harlem, New York

New talent takes the famed stage at the Apollo. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Visit the Apollo Theater

The Apollo Theater presents a full roster of concerts, stage shows and events. For the calendar and to purchase tickets, click here.

The famed Amateur Night at the Apollo continues on most Wednesdays at 7:30pm, March through October. The Wall Street Journal recently produced this video profile of Amateur Night. You can also catch the show on TV on BET’s Apollo Live.

Tours of the Apollo Theater

Historic tours of the Apollo Theater also are available, led by the entertaining and charismatic Billy Mitchell. He provides personal behind-the-scenes stories, access backstage, and even the chance to perform on the historic stage. For more information and reservations (required), click here.

Apollo Theater, Harlem, New York

Inside the landmark auditorium. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

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