2. The Apollo Theater – Present

The exterior of the Apollo Theater at night.
Marquee of Apollo Theatre in 1946. Photo by William P. Gottlieb from Library of Congress.

The Apollo Theater’s neo-classical building—located at 253 West 125th Street—was designed and built by architect George Keister in 1913. A few months later in 1914, noted burlesque producers Jules Hurtig and Harry Seamon obtained a 30-year lease for the property, giving it the name Hurtig and Seamon’s New (Burlesque) Theater and operating it as a whites-only establishment with a capacity of 1,506 people. In 1924, the Minsky brothers gained ownership of the theater and began to lease the space for burlesque shows, some of which included integrated casts with Black performers. After Fiorella La Guardia, one of New York City’s future mayors, began a campaign against burlesque in 1933, the theater was purchased by Sidney Cohen. Lavish renovations to the space soon followed and it was renamed the 125th Street Apollo Theater—to avoid confusion with the Apollo on 42nd Street. The theater also began to shift towards showcasing variety revues and catering to Harlem’s growing African-American community, becoming a prime venue for its performers to shine. 

By 1937 the Apollo Theater had become the largest employer of Black theatrical workers in the United States. Typical shows at the Apollo bore many similarities to vaudeville, having a chorus line of girls—though these became less common as time passed. Over the years, the theater has remained at the forefront of the American music scene—having played a major role in the emergence and rise to prominence of jazz, swing, bebop, R&B, gospel, blues, and soul music. Countless performances from many of the time’s most prominent Black musicians took place at the Apollo including Billie Holiday, Adelaide Hall, and Sammy Davis Jr.  In addition, the Apollo Theater became known for hosting Amateur Night contests beginning in 1934. At just 17 years old, a young Ella Fitzgerald became one of the contest’s first winners on November 1, 1934, after singing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection” by the Boswell Sisters. Over the years it has become a tradition for contestants to rub the Apollo’s “tree of hope” for good luck before their performances. Though the stump currently resides in the theater’s wings, it was originally taken in the early 1930s from a tall elm tree on 7th Avenue—known informally during the early 20th century as “the Boulevard of Dreams” as it housed the city’s black theater district. Currently, tap dancer Howard “Sandman” Sims holds a record for having won the Amateur Night competition 25 times. After finishing his reign as the contest’s champion, Sims moved on to become its executioner—using a broom to sweep performers off the stage at the behest of the audience—a role he played from the 1950s to 2000. 

Though the Apollo Theater had some of its most successful years during the 1960s—even starting to host its own drag show entitled “Jewel Box Revue”—rising drug problems in Harlem, a series of robberies and theft, and the shooting of the 18-year old Darrel Sculliark eventually led to its closing in 1976. On April 1 and 2, 1976, Fred and Felicidad Dukes along with Rafee Kamal produced two 60-minute television specials to help restore life to the theater.

The Apollo briefly reopened in 1978 under new leadership only to close again in November 1979. After being purchased by the private investor group Petty Sutton, the theater was revitalized and equipped with its own recording and television studio. 1983 saw the building gain state and city landmark status and in 1991, the non-profit Apollo Theater Foundation Inc. was founded to help manage and oversee the theater’s programming. To this day, the Apollo Theater continues to live up to its storied legacy, bringing striking performances to the public, providing educational opportunities in the arts for elementary, high school, and college students, and continuing to give nascent performers the opportunity to showcase their talents on the stage.