Photo by Ruth Morgan

THE APOLLO THEATER

Jules Hurtig and Harry Seamon, Co-Founders; Jonelle Procope, President

“The Apollo is the jewel in the crown on 125th Street, and remains an economic engine for Harlem as well as a stage for the best performers in the world.”

–Jonelle Procope

The neo-classical Apollo Theater in Harlem is to entertainment uptown what Radio City Music Hall is to midtown New York, and La Scala is to Milan, Italy: a cultural icon in which the best musical artists in the world perform. Its slogan, “Where stars are born and legends are made” is an understatement.

 

Since the 1930s, young artists from the blues, gospel, jazz, and R&B genres have graced its storied stage, touching the Tree of Hope to bolster their chances. Showman Ralph Cooper began the famous “Amateur Night at the Apollo” in 1934, the year in which Ella Fitzgerald took the throne. Jazz divas Sarah Vaughan and Gloria Lynne have also won this legendary contest; many others became stars after performing at the Apollo, including Billy Eckstine, Pearl Bailey, Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, the Jackson Five, D’Angelo and Lauryn Hill. James Brown, winner of the Amateur Night contest in 1956, recorded James Brown Live at the Apollo in 1962 and became known as the “Godfather of Soul.”

 

Amateur Night at the Apollo is significant too because of the tough audiences, who at the first sharp or flat note will cackle and boo the performer, prompting The Executioner a.k.a. “Puerto Rico” or “Sandman” to escort them off the stage. The late great R&B crooner Luther Vandross was awarded second place twice!

 

Under the management of Frank Schiffman, the Apollo Theater welcomed black American patrons beginning in 1934, after a fierce “burlesque war” among uptown theater owners wised them up to the green found in African-American pockets. Schiffman’s sons managed the theater until 1977. Parliament/Funkadelic was the last group to perform there before the house went dark because of economic hardship.

 

Legendary Harlem lawyer and businessman Percy Sutton and a group of private investors brought the lights back on in 1981. The television program It’s Showtime at the Apollo has brought emerging and established artists to viewers around the world since 1987. A glistening new façade was unveiled in December 2005, serving as a “metaphor for a new beginning,” says Jonelle Procope, the theater’s president and CEO. “The Apollo is the jewel in the crown on 125th Street, and remains an economic engine for Harlem as well as a stage for the best performers in the world.” 

 

—by GREG THOMAS