The History Of New York’s Apollo Theater looks at the story behind one of New York’s most famous musical venues. Located at 253 West 125th Street, New York’s Apollo Theater would become the iconic representation of music concerts located in New York City’s Harlem District. Established in 1913, it opened up its doors for the first time as a burlesque theater before evolving into what became a favorite hangout in the 1930s. Its role as a venue helped explode the influence of various musical genres ranging from blues to swing and everything in between. If you wanted to take in some jazz, go to the Apollo. This was also a favorite go-to for some incredible gospel music that could bring even nonbelievers to their knees in worship.
Designed by George Keister, Benjamin Hurtig and Harry Seamon were the first tenants to obtain a lease on what was a brand new theater at the time. For what was supposed to be a thirty-year lease, it was run as Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater. At the time, it was a venue that refused to allow members of the African-American community to enter. Also known as The New Burlesque Theater, it was renamed the 125th Street Theatre before Sidney S. Cohen purchased the building in 1932.
It was also during this time the central theater on Harlem’s main commercial street experienced a surge of African Americans into the district as the area was opened up to invite members of the black community to call it home. This resulted in the Great Migration from the South which would see Harlem’s population explode in the 1920s.
Under New Management
When Fiorello La Guardia became the new mayor of New York City in 1933, he vowed to put an end to burlesque theaters. This resulted in this theater closing its doors. Still owning the venue, Cohen opened it up again, this time as the Apollo Theater on January 26, 1934. Morris Sussman was his partner at the time who also became the theater’s manager. Together, they changed the format from burlesque to a variety of revues. This also included opening up the doors for the African-American population that was growing in Harlem.
The new direction of the Apollo Theater also featured amateur nights, which also began in 1934. These new policies allowed a much broader audience to come in and be entertained by a roster of talent that sought to make a name for themselves as a performer. Among the greats who accomplished this feat include Pearl Bailey, James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday, Glady Knight, and Luthor Vandross. Long before some of the biggest names in the music business became household names, they started out as unknowns in one of New York City’s hot spots.
Held every Wednesday night, Amateur Night allowed individuals and groups to perform before a live audience. This is where some of the biggest stars were discovered by talent scouts who wasted no time getting their hands on what they saw as future stars. Ella Fitzgerald was among the first that would turn into one of the greats that also became a household name, nationally and internationally. Her win happened on November 21, 1934, and she was seventeen years old at the time. After winning her twenty-five dollar prize, she was also recommended to a bandleader known as Chick Webb. This was the night that changed her life. Not bad for a young lady who only agreed to perform that night as part of a bet.
However, not every performer made as grand of an impression as some of the greats did. In many cases, if the audience didn’t care for what they felt was less than a perfect performance the entertainer would be booed off the stage. According to artists such as Smokey Robinson and Dionne Warwick, if the crowd wasn’t won over, the ferocity of its reaction was enough to make wannabe performers quake in fear. The Apollo was truly a proving ground for talent. If your best wasn’t good enough, the crowd wasn’t shy to let you know about it.
Brecher and Schiffman Legacy
In 1935, Leo Brecher and Frank Schiffman acquired the management and ownership of Apollo Theater. Two years later, this venue became the largest employer of African-American theatrical workers in the United States. It was the only theater in New York City at the time that hired members of the black community in backstage positions. During the second world war, tickets were set aside for soldiers, free of charge, so they had a place to go while they were in New York.
Through the remainder of the 1930s, then clean through the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the Apollo Theater was the pinnacle of what was considered the “chitlin circuit” of venues. It, along with Chicago’s Regal Theater and Washington, D.C.’s Howard Theater, catered to the African-American audience at a level that rightfully earned its place as one of the most respected. When the race riots broke out in the 1960s, Apollo was kept out of the fighting as a sign of respect for its legacy.
During the 1950s, The Detective Story starring Sidney Poitier became the first play to be shown on Apollo’s stage. This marked the introduction of Showtime At The Apollo. In 1955, it had its first broadcast, which was taped before a live studio audience. One of the performers included Big Joe Turner and the Count Basie Orchestra. Hosted by Willie Bryant, this laid out the foundation for future reality television programs from the theater.
On one fateful Wednesday in 1964, some twenty-two-year-old won the exact same Amateur Night contest Fitzgerald won thirty years earlier. That same young man soon earned his place as one of the world’s greatest guitarists that ever lived. Maybe you heard of him? He went by the name of Jimi Hendrix.
Apollo’s Comeback Story
The families of Brecher and Schiffman oversaw everything concerning the theater clean into the late 1970s. At one point, however, the doors closed in January 1976 before the Apollo opened up again in 1978. Unfortunately, it was short-lived as they closed again in November 1979. It would remain closed until 1981, the year Percy Sutton and his Inner City Broadcasting Corporation bought it. He, along with a group of private investors, restored and upgraded this iconic theater. Nowadays, Apollo has its own recording studio and television studio.
What Sutton and his investors did was restore the Apollo Theater back to its former glory, plus modernize it so it could better accommodate the trends of the entertainment industry. In 1983, it was recognized by New York as a city and state landmark. It was also noted that Apollo was Harlem’s oldest theater that was still in business.
On May 5, 1985, Motown Salutes the Apollo was a televised broadcast that paid homage to the greats who entertained the audience for more than five decades. That same year marked the return of Amateur Night with the first of its shows starting on Christmas Eve.
Today, this neo-classical landmark has become Apollo’s Historic Theater. Nowadays, it serves as a non-profit venue that hosts concerts and various performances. It’s also a source for community outreach programs, film screenings, and for educational purposes. This began in 1991 when the Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc. was established as a private, not-for-profit organization. Currently, there is a Board of Directors that run this theater. Not only do they have management control over Apollo but Victoria Theater as well.
Harlem’s rich heritage is met with current trends that see the Apollo Theater still remain a pillar of the community. Because of Apollo’s popularity and the rapport it had with the talent that started at this particular theater, many live albums were recorded by some of the biggest names in the business. B.B. King was one of them, as were James Brown, Clyde McPhatter, and Moms Mabley. In fact, B.B. King’s 1991 live album performance at the theater earned him a Best Traditional Blues Grammy Award.
In 2018, U2 played at the Apollo, an experience Bono described as the heart of New York’s musical soul. Now with a ninety-nine-year lease of only one dollar per year, the Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc. has been vigilant in the quest to keep the legacy of Apollo Theater going.