Apollo Theatre: A Standing Tribute to the History of African-American Arts and Music

by Nick David

The Apollo Theatre stands on West 125th Street, just north of Central Park and right in the heart of New York’s Harlem neighborhood. It is a music hall, a national landmark and a beacon of American music history.

From its heyday in the late 1930s to its modern incarnation, the Apollo has come to stand for all that is great about American music and the contributions of African-Americans to the soul of New York City and the country as a whole.

Apollo Theater

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History of the Apollo
The Apollo Theater began life as the New Burlesque Theater; a neo-classic theater which opened its doors in 1914 as a whites-only venue. It ran popular burlesque shows for years, until it fell into disrepute and disrepair in the 1930s. In 1933, the building was sold after soon-to-be New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia campaigned to close down burlesques.

The building was renovated and then reopened in 1934 as the Apollo Theater. This time it was open to patrons of all colors, and it began showcasing African-American acts, featuring performances by everyone from swing acts and jazz musicians to gospel singers and comedians.

The theater grew to its heyday in the pre-war era, when it labelled itself as the “place where stars are born”. The list of performers who graced the stage at the Apollo is nothing short of legendary; including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sam Cooke, Mahalia Jackson, Bill Cosby, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Otis Redding, to name just a few of its most legendary acts.

The Apollo, and its Harlem community, hit hard times in the 1970s, but both have since rebounded to embrace a new era.   After the turn of the 21st century, the theatre was renovated and restored to its original glory.

Amateur Night at the Apollo
Since it re-opened its doors in 1934, the most popular nights at the Apollo have been Amateur Nights, complete with “The Executioner” who sweeps bad acts off the stage, and full participation from a famously critical and vocal audience.

The list of people who got their start at Amateur Night reads like a who’s who of American culture. A 15-year-old Ella Fitzgerald won $25 here on one of the first Amateur Nights. Other stars that got their debut at the Apollo include Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Mariah Carey and Sammy Davis Jr.

Visiting the Apollo
The best way to visit the Apollo Theater is to come for Amateur Night. Amateur Night celebrated its 80th season in 2014, and is still held every Wednesday at 7:30pm from January to October. You can buy tickets in person at the box office, or at ticketmaster.com. Tickets range from $20 to $32, but plan far in advance as this popular event sells out incredibly fast.

You can also buy tickets to any of the remarkable concerts staged at the Apollo all year round. You can see anything here from a cutting edge comedy act to a dance recital to a world class concert by one of the world’s biggest stars. The Apollo seats about 1,500 people for one concert, but every year, more than a million people visit the theater.

If concert tickets are sold out, you can take a walking tour of the Apollo Theatre, led by the theater’s resident historian, Billy Mitchell, who has been with the Apollo since he started as a teenaged stagehand in the 1960s. Tours last an hour and cost $16 on weekdays, $18 on weekends. Call 212-531-5337 to make tour arrangements.

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