Apollo Theater

The landmark in New York City that is being focused on is the Apollo Theater. The reason for this specific focus on the Apollo Theater is because of its rich history throughout the past 100 years or so. The Theater has played host to many artists such as Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr., Jimi Hendrix, The Jackson Five, Ne-Yo, and many others. It has not only been a staple of the community of Harlem but the City of New York as a whole for many generations. What will be discussed is the history of the Apollo Theater to what it is present day, the highlights of the Theater, what the primary sources can reveal about the Apollo Theater, and how the Apollo Theater has helped our learning of the city of New York and America as a whole for the time that it has been around.

The story of the Apollo Theater[1] starts in 1914 with the construction of the building on 125th Street in New York City. The owner of the building was Sidney Cohen, he gave a thirty-year lease on the Theater to Benjamin Hurtig and Harry Seamon. These two men once obtaining the lease called this new Theater the Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater. This Theater was designed to only show burlesque shows and actually, African Americans were not allowed to be patrons nor were they given the right to perform. However, demographics were shifting and from 1910 to 1930 the demographics changed in Harlem. The African American population in Harlem rose over 40% in this time creating a new kind of audience for the Theater[2]. In 1930 there were over 200,000 African Americans living in Harlem[3]. Not only were the demographics shifting in Harlem, but the Apollo Theater would soon find itself vacant. In 1933 Fiorello La Guardia (at the time he was a member of the House of Representatives from New York, and in 1934 became mayor of New York City) started a campaign to shut down all burlesque Theater in the city. Burlesque Theaters were normally geared towards males and the Theaters would have stage entertainment; this entertainment would often have women performing in the nude. La Guardia wanted to end the filth known as burlesque in the city, even saying “the word ‘burlesque’ could not be used in any theater advertising[4]” (Bovsun, Mara). Due to this ruling, the Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater was shut down for the foreseeable future. In 1934 though Sidney Cohen reopened the Theater with his partner Morris Sussman. Sussman would serve as manager of the now called Apollo Theater. The Apollo Theater would hold different kinds of performances like variety shows, stand up comedy, music, and talent in general. Along with the new theme and name of the Theater was the new market that Cohen and Sussman wanted to target.

The new target market for Cohen and Sussman was African Americans who had moved into the Harlem neighborhood. This greater influx in African Americans was in part because of the Great Migration[5]. The Great Migration was when African Americans from the rural south decided to move to the urban centers in the north to avoid the Jim Crow laws in the South. Overall the Great Migration saw the relocation of six million African Americans between the years of 1916 to 1970. In 1935 new owners came into the picture as Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher. Both of these men’s families would own the Apollo Theater until the late 1970s. From the late 1970s to the early 1980s the Theater was opened on and off. The main reason for the lack of success that the Theater had during this time was because of the gentrification that was happening in Harlem during this time. Many officials and social scientists believed that there was a way to make another Harlem Renaissance and that was through mixed-income housing[6]. This way people of all different walks of life could come in and live in Harlem thus spreading new ideas and cultures to each other. Instead what happened was the people in charge drove the poor African American community away, and when that happened Harlem lost the culture that it had cultivated for the last 30-40 years. Because of this, the crown jewel of Harlem in the Apollo Theater was abandoned. That is until Percy Sutton bought the Apollo Theater and equipped it with a television and recording studio. In 1983, the Apollo Theater received New York state and city landmark status. And in 1991 the Apollo Theater Foundation Inc. was founded to run the Apollo Theater to what it is today. Today it is a center for concerts, performing arts, education, and community outreach programs. Overall the history of the Apollo Theater is a long one full of peaks and valleys. This Theater has changed hands many times in its history, but the everlasting effect of the Apollo Theater is its soul. This soul has helped bring many highlights to the famed Theater.

 

This is an Apollo Theater Playbill from 1941. This Playbill can show us what the marketing strategy was back in the ’40s to help market the theater properly.

The Apollo Theater throughout its 106-year history has had many highlights. It was tough trying to narrow down the biggest most defining moments of the Theater, but here are some. The first has to be the most influential moment of the Apollo Theater’s history and that is when it created its Amateur Night back in 1934. This night showcased many individuals who were not famous but looking to become famous in the future. This night was a springboard for a lot of young talented artists. An example can be Ella Fitzgerald who at the age of 15 won one of the first amateur nights and went on to be one of the most gifted jazz singers ever. The competition-style was also revolutionary. As ApolloTheater.org writes “the quintessential talent competition, serving as the model for Star Search and American Idol… The show marries world-class talent with a distinctive, vaudeville-like atmosphere, and has depended on audience participation since the very beginning. The popularity contest has proven an effective measure of star potential, becoming a launchpad for some of the nation’s greatest entertainers[7]” (“History & Legacy”). This just shows how influential these nights were too young up and coming talents who were trying to make it in the industry. The next highlight of the Apollo Theater was in May of 1985 when the Apollo Theater celebrated its 50th year being open and grand reopening. This was an important event for the Theater because this Theater had become ingrained in American culture and was an important artifact in the history of the city of New York. To add to the fact that the Apollo Theater was this cultural icon Stephan Holden from the New York Times wrote: “the Theater often known as ‘the big top,’ gained an international reputation as a performance center for top black musicians[8]” (Stephan Holden). This event was also important for another reason and that was that the Apollo Theater was reopening for the first time since 1978. This was because of Harlem in the ’70s becoming poor because many that could afford to move outdid. This left all of the poorer individuals to stay, and the Apollo Theater could not generate revenue. However, with $4 million worth of renovations done by Inner-City Broadcasting Corporation[9], the grand reopening was ready, and what a night it was. The reopening was recorded so it could play on NBC in a few weeks’ time. According to Frank Spotnitz of the United Press International over 80 acts performed on this night[10]. Including some of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century, the list of those was Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Patti Labelle, and Little Richard. The event was hosted by Bill Cosby and included George Michael, Rod Stewart, and Joe Cocker performances. Overall, this night really helped return the Apollo Theater to its place on top of the mantle as one of the most important buildings in the city of New York and to the culture of America.

This picture is of the Apollo Theater back in 1950. This picture shows us what the Theater looked like back in its heyday and how it attracted people’s attention from the outside.

Through the newspaper articles about the grand reopening of the Apollo Theater in the New York Times and United Press International, we can see how important this building means to the people of the city. The Apollo Theater had another big-time highlight in the fall of 1962 and that was James Brown visiting the Apollo Theater.  This visit came during an intense time in the United States. James Brown’s visit in the fall of 1962 to the Apollo Theater was during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was when the world thought that on any given day the United States and Cuba were going to launch missiles at each other to signal the start of World War Three. However, James Brown gave the people in Harlem that night that would become one of the many highlights of the Theater. The New Pittsburgh Courier was one of the media outlets covering the event and said, “His magnetic power at the Apollo, however, went beyond all expectations and he has been permanently enshrined among that Theater’s desirable attractions[11]” (James Brown Rocks Apollo; Washington Baltimore to Follow). This quote shows the power that James Brown’s performance had; this performance was able to help Brown be considered one of the greatest acts ever to perform in the Apollo Theater.

The Apollo Theater helps us view the city of New York under a different microscope. Instead of looking at it as the city on the go or the business capital of the world, the Apollo Theater forces us to look at this city as a city for entertainment. The Theater also helped show that talent could be found anywhere, especially in Harlem, New York. The Apollo Theater served as a stage for many African Americans and Latinos to display their talent to not just Harlem but the world. The Apollo Theater stands as one of the few buildings in this world that can connect millions of people to it to matter race, religion, or sexual orientation. This Theater has continuously shown the magic that the performing arts have can have on us as humans. For example, the magically night of the grand reopening, the dazzling performances on amateur night, or the night in 1962 when James Brown imprinted his legacy on the stage. That is why it is such an important building today. This building is a building that for 86 years has been bringing people and communities together, and not tearing them apart. The Apollo Theater is a piece of heaven sent down to us and it sits on 125th Street in New York City.

[1] “APOLLO THEATER HISTORY.” Apollo Theater. Apollo Theater. Accessed March 31, 2020. https://www.apollotheater.org/about/history/.

[2] “Exhibitions.” Black Capital: Harlem in the 1920s | The New York State Museum. Accessed April 26, 2020. http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/exhibitions/ongoing/black-capital-harlem-1920s-0.

[3] Robertson, Stephen, Shane White, Stephen Garton, and Graham White. “This Harlem Life: Black Families and Everyday Life in the 1920S and 1930S.” Journal of Social History 44, no. 1 (Fall 2010): 98. doi:10.1353/jsh.2010.0003.

[4]Bovsun, Mara. “When Cops Raided NYC’s Minsky’s Burlesque for ‘Incorporated Filth’.” nydailynews.com. New York Daily News, April 7, 2018. https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/cops-raided-nyc-minsky-burlesque-incorporated-filth-article-1.2903311.

[5] History.com Editors. “The Great Migration.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, March 4, 2010. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/great-migration.

[6] Prince, Sabiyha. 2005. “Race, Class, and the Packaging of Harlem.” Identities 12 (3): 385–404. doi:10.1080/10702890500203629.

[7] “History & Legacy.” Apollo Theater. Accessed April 1, 2020. https://www.apollotheater.org/amateur-night/an-history-legacy/.

[8] Holden, Stephen. “Apollo Theater Celebrates Its Return.” New York Times, May 5, 1985. https://search.proquest.com/docview/111304676?accountid=13793.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Spotnitz, Frank. “Harlem’s Historic Apollo Theater Celebrated Its 50th Anniversary with…” United Press International . May 5, 1985. https://www.upi.com/Archives/1985/05/05/Harlems-historic-Apollo-Theater-celebrated-its-50th-anniversary-with/6648484113600/.

[11] “James Brown Rocks Apollo; Washington Baltimore to Follow.” New Pittsburgh Courier, November 3, 1962.

Bibliography

“APOLLO THEATER HISTORY.” Apollo Theater. Apollo Theater. Accessed March 31, 2020.   https://www.apollotheater.org/about/history/.

Bovsun, Mara. “When Cops Raided NYC’s Minsky’s Burlesque for ‘Incorporated Filth’.” nydailynews.com. New York Daily News, April 7, 2018. https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/cops-raided-nyc-minsky-burlesque-incorporated-filth-article-1.2903311.

“Exhibitions.” Black Capital: Harlem in the 1920s | The New York State Museum. Accessed April 26, 2020. http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/exhibitions/ongoing/black-capital-harlem-1920s-0..

“History & Legacy.” Apollo Theater. Accessed April 1, 2020. https://www.apollotheater.org/amateur-night/an-history-legacy/.

History.com Editors. “The Great Migration.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, March 4, 2010. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/great-migration.

Holden, Stephen. “Apollo Theater Celebrates Its Return.” New York Times, May 5, 1985. https://search.proquest.com/docview/111304676?accountid=13793.

“James Brown Rocks Apollo; Washington Baltimore to Follow.” New Pittsburgh Courier, November 3, 1962.

Prince, Sabiyha. 2005. “Race, Class, and the Packaging of Harlem.” Identities 12 (3): 385–404. doi:10.1080/10702890500203629.

Robertson, Stephen, Shane White, Stephen Garton, and Graham White. “This Harlem Life: Black Families and Everyday Life in the 1920S and 1930S.” Journal of Social History 44, no. 1 (Fall 2010): 98. doi:10.1353/jsh.2010.0003.

Schwab, Eric. “Apollo Theater Marquee.” Smithsonian Primary Sources in U.S. History, Gale, 1950. Smithsonian Primary Sources in U.S. History, Accessed 31 Mar. 2020.

Spotnitz, Frank. “Harlem’s Historic Apollo Theater Celebrated Its 50th Anniversary with…” United Press International . May 5, 1985. https://www.upi.com/Archives/1985/05/05/Harlems-historic-Apollo-Theater-celebrated-its-50th-anniversary-with/6648484113600/.

The Phillips Collection. Accessed April 1, 2020. https://www.phillipscollection.org/migration_series/popups/popups22.htm.

 

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