Marquee of Apollo Theatre in 1946. Photo by William P. Gottlieb from Library of Congress.
The iconic Apollo Theatre, whose stage has been graced by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Billie Holiday, Bruce Springsteen and even the Obamas, turns 80 years old this Sunday. While Harlem has had its ups and downs over the decades, the theater has remained a powerful source of culture and hope for the neighborhood. Today, we’ve gathered up some vintage photos starting from when the Apollo was a vaudeville and burlesque house.
The theater was built in 1913 to 1914 as Hurtig & Seamon’s all-white New Burlesque Theater, and was designed by George Keister in the neo-Classical style. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s campaign against vice also targeted burlesque, and the theater was closed by 1933. It became the Apollo in 1934, when it was opened to black patrons, and soon became a hotspot for African American pop culture and music.
The Apollo grew to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance of the pre-World War II years. Billing itself as a place “where stars are born and legends are made,” the Apollo became famous for launching the careers of artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, who made her singing debut at 17 at the Apollo. Fitzgerald’s performances pulled in a weekly audience at the Apollo where she competed in one of the earliest of its “Amateur Nights.”
Photo by William P. Gottlieb from Library of Congress.
Despite its success and popularity, the theater had problems during the 1970s, when Harlem saw an uptick in crime, and the doors were shut in 1976. It reopened briefly in 1978 and ’79.
A major revival occurred in 1981, when political activist and Apollo supporter Percy Sutton bought and reopened the theater, creating a television production studio that showcased concerts, events and talent throughout the world, especially through the late-night syndicated “Showtime at the Apollo” show. Soon after, renovations were made and the seating capacity was increased by a small percentage.
In 1983, on the 50th anniversary of the theater, both the interior and exterior of the building were designated as New York City Landmarks and two years later – ShowTime at the Apollo – the television show based on the original Apollo Amateur Night, began airing in syndication and now runs weekly on NBC affiliates in 119 markets nationwide.
Over the years, Amateur Night has also launched the careers of Pearl Bailey, Sarah Vaughn, Ruth Brown, Dionne Warwick, James Brown, Gladys Knight, Jimi Hendrix, the Jackson Five, and Lauryn Hill.
Michael Jackson performed at the Apollo at age 9 during amateur hour as a part The Jackson 5. “That little boy, he stood out, even at that age,” says Billy Mitchell, tour director at the Apollo while he proudly shows off the institution during one of his tours. Mitchell also reminds you to be sure to rub the tree of hope stub that has been at the Apollo since the very beginning and is an important ritual at Amateur night.
See current day photographs of the Apollo Theater on Untapped Cities here.