As the story goes…. there once was a dancer who showed up to the Apollo Theater for Amateur night in 1935.
The young lady saw the dancers scheduled to go on ahead of her and decided to quit, fearing she could not compete with them. But before she could exit the theater, Ralph Cooper, the creator of Amateur Night, asked her if she could do anything besides dance, and she said she could sing. So he pushed the nervous young lady on stage and she began to sing the first song that came to her mind, “A tisket, A tasket.”
But as her nerves got the best off her, she forgot the words to the song. She began to improvise and mimic the sound of a trumpet. The audience went wild and she went on to become the first woman to win Amateur night. Her name was Ella Fitzgerald. And the story became Apollo legend.
For 75 years, the theater has been the launch pad for nearly every superstar musical act in genres of jazz, gospel, R&B, soul, funk, and hip-hip and has become a cultural icon around the world to both performers and music lovers for the rich history and place it holds for African Americans.
But what separates the Apollo from other theaters around the world is the symbiotic relationship between its audience and performers.
The Apollo audience is known as one of the most “vocal” audiences in the world. So when a performer doesn’t meet audience expectations, the audience won’t hesitate to shout out their disapproval.
“There were always people in this audience who were as talented as the people on stage,” says comedian Steve Harvey. ” But because of certain circumstances, they never got a shot at living the dream. So when you got on this stage, you really had to bring it.
The Beginnings of a Legend
Founded in 1913 as Hurtig and Seamon’s New (Burlesque) Theater, for the first twenty years of its existence, the theater at 253 West 125th was closed to African American patrons.
During this era, neighborhoods in New York City were segregated by race and ethnicity. Harlem itself was comprised mainly of Italian, Irish, Jewish and Dutch settlers and African Americans lived on restricted blocks that were few in number and had even fewer places to socialize.
But the end of World War I coupled with the Great Migration of African Americans from the South created a perfect storm that would blow the roof off of segregation in Harlem and create an icon.
During the Roaring 20s, African Americans were sometimes invited to perform at white-only clubs, but were not allowed in as patrons. But in 1934, when Hurtig and Seamon’s New (Burlesque) Theater was sold to Sidney S. Cohen and its name changed to 125th Street Apollo, it ushered in a new era of inclusion and musical theater.
With the popularity of burlesque declining, radio personality Ralph Cooper Sr. convinced owners to bring his “Jazz a la Carte” show to the Apollo making it the first all-Black performance at the Apollo.
A second barrier was broken when the Apollo began selling tickets to African Americans making it the first venue in New York City to allow Blacks as patrons. Perhaps Ralph Cooper Sr. most important decision was to bring his popular radio program to the Apollo which he call “Amateur Night.”
The setup was simple, as an illuminated microphone arose from underneath the stage, unsigned and undiscovered acts would attempt to impress a very vocal audience. If expectations were not met, one would be “swept” off the stage with a broom, “escorted” off with a bow and arrow, or slightly “edged” off by an out of control tap dancer. All they while, the audience would boo and scream their approval. As Quincy Jones put it, “This was the first American Idol.”
And the world took notice: Amateur Night is responsible for introducing the world to Billie Holiday, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Sarah Vaughan and Aretha Franklin.
Civil Rights and Beyond: The Apollo Takes it Place in History
An enduring icon, the Apollo has always been more than a musical venue. Serving as a meeting point for the community, it hosts numerous rallies, political debates, health fairs and religious events.
In the 60s, The Apollo served as a rallying point during the Civil Rights Movement. And leaders of the movement did not miss out on the opportunity to make their presence felt. Both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X frequented shows and could be found preaching to crowds in front of the Apollo.
In fact, after the murders of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, riots broke out in many Black neighborhoods. Harlem was no exception. Buildings were burned and many were looted; however, ”… not one brick of the Apollo theater was touched,” says Billy Mitchell, who has worked at the Apollo since 1964. “That is the type of respect that people had for this theater.”
“People were so proud of this place that they didn’t want anything done to this theater.”
Rebirth , the Future and its Enduring Legacy
A typical show at the Apollo would consist of five or six musical acts. As the 70s drew to a close, top-billed artists could make far more money performing at other venues in New York where they would not have to split their proceeds with other musical acts. And with no big-named artists coming to the venue, the Apollo fell on hard times.
Purchased by Inner City Broadcasting, a firm headed by former Manhattan borough president Percy E. Sutton, the Apollo was given a new lease on life in 1983.
“But when we reopened in 1984, you couldn’t give away free tickets to come here,” says Mitchell. “The new generation knew very little about the history of this building.”
But strangely enough, the discovery of hip-hop would be just what it took to jumpstart the heartbeat of the Apollo.
In its infancy, hip hop’s pioneers where all home-grown talent from various boroughs of New York City rapping at block parties and on streets corners. But once the Apollo opened its stages to acts like LL Cool J and Run DMC, the popularity of both the artists and the venue once again took off.
Along with the television debut of the nationally syndicated variety show “Showtime at the Apollo” the 80s ushered in a period of popularity and prosperity that had not been seen for many years.
Renewed interest in the venue helped it become a national landmark in 1985.
The State of New York City purchased the building in 1991, and has since invested millions of dollars into the refurbishment and upkeep of the Apollo; now run by the non-profit Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc.
And so future generations will know the history and legacy of the Apollo a series of high profile exhibit are planned for 2010. First, The Smithsonian will debut an exhibit in the nation’s capital of rare and never-before-seen Apollo memorabilia. The collection will be composed of prized possession from the Apollo and from the artists who have performed there.
Also, Columbia University will open an exhibit revealing the oral history of the venue, where the people who helped make the Apollo will tell their stories as the Griots of Black culture.
As black music month comes draws to a close, the part that the Apollo has played in black music endures.