The Apollo Theater: Where Stars Are Born and Legends Are Made

Thanks to the tv show Showtime at the Apollo (1987-2008) and subsequent shows like Apollo Live, Harlem’s Apollo Theater may well be the most famous variety venue in the United States, eclipsing even the Palace (which in any case ceased to present variety a half century ago). Black History Month is the perfect time for a long overdue Travalanche appreciation on the storied theater, which is now over a century old.

Like Harlem itself, the Apollo wasn’t always predominantly African American. In fact, ironically, like the later Cotton Club, it was actually segregated — whites only — in the beginning. It first opened as a burlesque house, Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater in 1914. Then, in 1928, the Minskys, the top burlesque chain of the day, took it over. But by the early 1930’s, the Depression hit the theatre world hard and the Minskys closed its doors and sold it to local theatre owner Sidney Cohen. Cohen wisely reoriented the theatre to the local African American community and renamed it the Apollo. It opened as such in 1934. The first star to appear there was Adelaide Hall.

Initially, the house had a vaudeville format, and presented not just great singers and bands, but also featured a chorus line, and lots of dancers and comedians. Some of the early performers included Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, The Berry Brothers, the Nicholas Brothers, Buck and Bubbles, Butterbeans and Susie, Tim Moore, Stepfin Fetchit, Moms Mabley, Pigmeat Markham, Eddie Rector, Cholly Atkins, Rubberlegs Williams, and Dusty Fletcher. Another vaudeville style feature was the amateur night. One of the earliest major stars to make her debut at Amateur Night at the Apollo was Ella Fitzgerald, who scored a hit there in 1934. And just as Miner’s Bowery Theatre yanked the bad acts off the stage with a hook, at the Apollo, such acts were either swept off the stage with a broom, or chased off with a prop gun and a siren noise, which is almost like a circus clown kind of approach. The best known emcee of the Amateur Night was Sandman Sims, who started doing the chore in the early 1950s.

The swing era saw big bands come in, and the Apollo presented such acts as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn, Pearl Bailey, Billie Holiday, Chuck and ChucklesWillie BryantStump and Stumpy, Mantan Moreland, and Sammy Davis Jr. There were rock and blues acts like Little Richard, Big Mama Thornton, Ben E. King, King Curtis, the Isley Brothers, and James Brown. The ’60s saw performers like Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Bill Cosby, Nipsy Russell, Godfrey Cambridge, LaWanda Page, Richard Pryor, Rudy Ray Moore, Redd Foxx, Jimi Hendrix, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smoky Robinson and the Miracles, Wilson Pickett, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Dionne Warwick, the Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder. And in the 70s, Luther Vandross, Parliament Funkadelic, and Chaka Kahn, etc etc.

In 1976, the Apollo closed briefly to reorganize following several incidents of violence at the theatre. It changed hands a few times. In 1983, Inner City Broadcasting bought it, leading to the 1987 of the successful tv show Showtime at the Apollo, hosted by performers like Sinbad, Martin Lawrence, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Harvey, and Mo’Nique. In 1993, NBC presented a televised all star show called The Apollo Theater Hall of Fame, which featured, among the stellar line up of artists, Thelma Carpenter, who had won the Apollo Amateur Night in 1938. There have been many later television shows originating from the Apollo, including Apollo Live. 

Ever since the big band days, the Apollo has also presented white acts…ranging from Harry James to Buddy Holly…to Amy Schumer (I just watched her Aopllo comedy special the other night!). And, more significantly, whites have made up a significant component of the Apollo’s audiences at various key points, since as long ago as the swing era. While manifestly a Harlem institution, and an African American institution, the Apollo has also been a springboard for mainstream, national (and international) success for the entertainers who perform there.

It’s going stronger than ever! See what’s playing there right now!