The Apollo Theater – a Harlem 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, “Showtime at the Apollo”
I have walked by this theater many times but never went inside. I had the opportunity to visit the Apollo Theater as they had a free open house. It wasn’t on my “bucket-list” but certainly it was something I had wanted to do for a long time – -a cultural must. And, did I mention the word “free” ?
The building was built-in 1913 as the Hurtig & Seamon Burlesque Theater. In 1933, Fiorello La Guardia, who would later become New York City’s Mayor, began a campaign against burlesque. Hurtig & Seamon’s was one of many theaters that would close down. The Theater was reopened in 1934 as the Apollo. The format of the shows from burlesque to variety revues and redirected their marketing attention to the growing African-American community in Harlem.
The inside of the building reminded me of the theaters of my youth which we called fancy but today they call neo-classical. Along with the main floor it has two balconies and the seats look very inviting. If you take their regular tour you get to see much more of theater and learn much more about the past and present entertainers that have “played the Apollo”.Billy Mitchell (Mr Apollo) usually hosts these events.
Around the time that the Apollo Theater first opened in 1934, the City of New York widened Seventh Avenue and the trees that had once lined the Boulevard of Dreams had to be removed. One of the trees doomed to this fate was the famous Harlem landmark, The Tree of Hope. To this day, a large section of the trunk of this very tree stands on the Apollo stage and every Wednesday night, hopeful performers touch the tree in the hope they can share in the good fortune of so many performers in the past.
In 1934, the Wednesday Amateur Night began. Amateur Night in Harlem radio shows were broadcast live from the Apollo over WMCA and carried on a national network of 21 stations. The show quickly became the leading showcase for many young, talented, new performers such as a 15-year-old Ella Fitzgerald, who went on to become one of the first Amateur Night winners.
Some think that Amateur Night at the Apollo served as the model for Star Search and American Idol.
I must confess that I knew of some of the older stars. Many of you may only know their names from history so here is a short list of some of them:
- Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and the Count Basie Orchestra are among those to make their debut.
- Dinah Washington and Sammy Davis, Jr. make their first Apollo appearance.
- “The Detective Story,” with Sidney Poitier is the first dramatic play to be shown on the stage.
- Heavyweight boxing champion Joe Lewis knocks out the Apollo audience with his comedy routine.
- The “Motortown” Revue debuts with the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Commodores and “Little” Stevie Wonder.
- John Lennon and Yoko Ono appear at a 1971 benefit concert for Attica.
- Tony Bennett plays a sold-out engagement honoring Billie Holiday.
All in all, I am glad I went even if it was only to say, “I appeared on the Apollo Theater Stage”.
For anybody who ever tuned in to Showtime The Apollo” back in the day, you know that some contestants got booed off the stage. If you’re horrifically bad and don’t realize it, not only will the crowd let you know, but they’ll send the Sandman on you.
Howard Sims (January 24, 1917 – May 20, 2003), als. o known as “Sandman”, was a tap dancer in vaudeville He acquired his name from the sand he sprinkled on the floor to amplify the sound of his steps when he danced. In his senior years, Sims appeared comedically ushering failed acts offstage with a shepherd’s crook, or “hook”.