Little Bits of History

Live, at the Apollo

Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 26, 2015
Apollo Theater

Apollo Theater

January 26, 1934: The Apollo Theater opens. A theater at 253 West 125th Street was built in 1913-14 and originally called Hurtig & Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater. It was of a neo-classical design by George Keister and was a Whites Only venue. Hurtig and Seamon were famous burlesque producers and obtained a 30-lease on the building which seated over 1,500 people. In 1928, Billy Minsky took over running the theater. By the early 1930s the theater was in disrepair and closed. In 1933 it was purchased by Sidney Cohen who also owned other theaters in the area. Lavish renovations were made and on this date, the new theater opened with the show “Jazz a la Carte” headlined by Benny Carter and his Orchestra, Ralph Cooper, and Aida Ward. The theater now catered to the African-American citizens of Harlem, New York City, and the world.

On Valentine’s Day of 1934, the first major star came to the Apollo in the form of jazz singer and Broadway star, Adelaide Hall. She appeared in Chocolate Soldiers for a limited run. Sam Wooding’s Orchestra was featured and the engagement was highly praised in the press which helped seal the Apollo’s reputation as a stellar venue. The theater was managed by Morris Sussman and had great competition from other theaters such as the Lafayette which also provided big name entertainment (Louis Armstrong, Bojangles, and Bessie Smith). In the beginning, the shows presented at the Apollo were similar to a vaudeville show complete with a chorus line of pretty girls. That changed as time went on.

The Lafayette was the first to offer amateur night but the Apollo soon took up the idea as well. Winners of the Amateur Night at the Apollo included Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey. Ella was only 17 when she first performed there and when her chance came, she almost chose to dance instead of sing, but was intimidated by the Edwards Sisters. She performed two numbers and won the first prize of $25. Jimi Hendrix won first place in an amateur musician contest in 1964. Other big names whose careers started at the Apollo are legion and include Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis, Jr., James Brown, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and many more.

The 1960s was the Apollo’s most successful decade but as the neighborhood declined, so did the venue. As drugs became more prevalent, robberies and thefts in the area made it unsafe for people to go to the theater. The theater closed in 1976 after an 8-year-old boy was shot to death. Two specials were aired on TV in order to help raise funds to revive the theater. The venue changed hands several times in the ensuing decades.  Once again, renovations were undertaken and today, the Apollo Theater draws about 1.3 million visitors each year. It is on the US National Register of Historic Places and is a New York City Landmark.

The Apollo probably exerted a greater influence upon popular culture than any other entertainment venue in the world. For blacks it was the most important cultural institution–not just the greatest black theatre, but a special place to come of age emotionally, professionally, socially, and politically. – Ted Fox

I told them the rules: “If you like the performer, cheer. You know how to cheer, don’t you?” And the audience let out a roar that rattled windows all over Harlem. – Ralph Cooper

I was at the Apollo Theater all the time, skipping school, and I worked in a barbershop. That’s how I started with doo-wop. Now I’ve come full circle. I did all kinds of music. I used to work on Broadway and Tin Pan Alley. – George Clinton

Forget what you heard—there’s no place like Harlem. Uptown, baby, is where the magic happens and deferred dreams materialize. – Kenya N Byrd

Also on this day: The Hills Are Alive – In 1905, Maria von Trapp was born.
Phantom – In 1988, The Phantom of the Opera opened in New York City.
Bald Eagle or Wild Turkey? – In 1784, Benjamin Franklin debates using the eagle as engraved on the national seal.
Brilliant – In 1905, the Cullinan Diamond was found.
Missing Children – In 1966, three Beaumont children went missing, never to be seen again.

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