If you were born in the 1900’s you should know a little something about the historical Apollo theater.
If those walls could talk about the last eighty years, it would be a conversation full of laughing, cheering, singing, and booing of all the performers that have rubbed the wood, failed or conquered. The prominent Harlem theater has been as important to the black community as the Civil Rights Movement. It was a civil rights movement for our entertainment. It was the starting point for some of the black communities most creative and talented entertainers. Let’s take a celebratory look over the last 8 decades of career changing performances.
The Thriving 30’s
In 1934, after the building served as a Burlesque Night club for over ten years, the owner, Sidney Cohen wanted to try something new. He revamped the space and reopened as the 125th Street Apollo Theater, along with his partner Morris Sussman who managed the property. Cohen decided to use the space to host variety shows that would showcase an assortment of talent and create a home front for the growing creative community in Harlem.
In 1935, Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher took over the theatre and maintain the goals of the previous owners. The theater was a playground for 1930’s Jazz ensemble, Benny Carter and his Orchestra, and comedians Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham and Jackie “Moms” Mabley.
The 40s, 50s, & 60s
Over the course of these 3 decades, the Apollo Theater remained a platform for legends like as Sammy Davis Jr., Lionel Hampton’s 16 piece band, and Dinah Washington. Because it was difficult for artists of color to perform in white establishments, the Apollo theater , became known as one of the stations for the well known ‘chitlin circuit’. The comedians of this era earned good money from traveling to African American theaters that would allow them to perform.
During World War II, each day the owners of the theater reserved 35 tickets for soldiers, eventually the United Service Organization declared Tuesday nights, “Apollo Night.” The 50’s were all about the Blues, Latin culture, and the art of drama. Sydney Poitier starred in the theater’s first dramatic play, “The Detective Story.” James Brown was among one of the many artists that got their first break at the famous “Amateur Night”, and years later came back as a bonafide superstar. The 60’s was a breeding ground for Ray Charles’ Show, The Motown Revue, and Blues Nights which produced names like Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and B.B. King.
The 70s, 80s & 90s
This era was the shift of the century for black people. Our entertainers were welcomed on most stages around the world. They performed for everyone who would listen. Although, blacks were now able to perform, they always came back to the place that welcome them first. In the 1970’s, Aretha Franklin’s show was a major event. It was reported that the marquee would always read, “She’s Home. The theater was not only a place for black people but they welcomed all people. John Lennon and Yoko Ono performed to raise money for charity.
In 1976, Bobby Schiffman closed the Apollo theater. It reopened briefly in ’78 featuring shows from Bob Marley, Parliament Funkadelic, War, and Sister Sledge. In 1981, the Apollo theatre was officially under new management by Percy Sutton’s Inner City Broadcasting Corporation along with other private investors.
In 1983, the Apollo received recognition for being the oldest functioning theater in Harlem. On May 5, 1985 there was a major celebration for the renovation and 50th Anniversary of the theater. The theater hosted two tribute shows, Motown Salutes the Apollo and Showtime at the Apollo” which eventually launched as a television show.
In the 1990s, the Apollo Theater Foundation Inc. (a not-to- profit organization) was established to fund, manage, and program the Apollo Theater. It seems like the 90’s were the golden years of the Apollo reaping the fruits of their labor. It became one of the most successful talent shows on television. The Foundation launched its 1st performance series with a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The theater currently holds 1,500 seats and still provides a space for talent. The Foundation is currently restoring the 125th Street marquee and modernizing the interior.