Located in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan, New York at 253 West 125th Street, between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, this great music venue is a prominent location for African-American artists, in addition to being the headquarters of a national television show that showcases new talents.
With a capacity of 1,506 and designed by George Keister in neoclassical style, the theater opened its doors in 1914 as the New Burlesque Theater of Hurtig and Seamon, where only white people were allowed. In 1930, due to the Great Depression suffered by the economy, the theater fell into disrepair and was closed, but in 1933, Sidney Cohen acquired the space, and on January 16, 1934 the theater reopened its doors as the “Apollo Theater.” Among the stars participating in its opening was the jazz singer and Broadway star Adelaide Hall, in the production of Clarence Robinson Soldiers, accompanied by Sam Wooding’s Orchestra. The show had a limited commitment and was highly praised by the press, which helped establish the reputation of the Apollo.
Despite the great competition that existed with other theaters, the Apollo shows were similar to vaudeville, with the wide variety of performances including musical dance and comedy shows. The Apollo featured the debut of Duke Ellington and showcased many other recognized artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Carmen De Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder and comedians Butterbeans and Susi.
Although the theater focused on the exhibition of African-American acts, there were also rock and roll performers in the 1950s, such as Buddy Holly and Duane Eddy, who played at the Apollo. The audience of the theater was often mixed. In the 1940s it was estimated that during the week, approximately 40% of the audience was white, which would increase to 75% for weekend shows.
The Apollo was the epicenter of musical culture and entertainment influenced by the Harlem Renaissance of the previous years in World War II and was known as the place “where stars are born and legends are made.” Some of the artists who started their career in the theater there were: Ella Fitzgerald, the Edwards Sisters and Jimi Hendrix, who won the first prize in an amateur musicians contest in 1964.
In the decade of the 60s that followed, problems arose in Harmlen, including an increase in robberies and drugs. A young person of 18 years was shot to death in 1976, causing the Apollo to close for a time. It reopened later that year, with Fred and Felicidad Dukes, along with Rafee Kamaal, producing two 90-minute television specials as a way to help restore life in the theater, featuring acts such as James Brown and George Clinton and the Parliament-Funkadelic. In 1991, the state of New York created the Apollo Theater Foundation, a nonprofit organization, to take over the theater’s operation. In 2001, the interior of the theatre was restored by a prestigious architectural firm specializing in the restoration of historic buildings, and in 2005, the restoration of the exterior was carried out.
With the celebration of its 75th anniversary in 2010, the theater gathered a file of historical material, including documents and photographs, and began an oral history project with Columbia University. It is estimated that the theater has 1.3 million visitors per year.