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Apollo Theater
U.S. National Register of Historic Places
NYC Landmark
The Apollo Theater, c. 2009
Apollo Theater is located in New York
Location: Harlem, New York
Coordinates: 40°48′36.17″N 73°57′0.54″W / 40.8100472°N 73.95015°W / 40.8100472; -73.95015Coordinates: 40°48′36.17″N 73°57′0.54″W / 40.8100472°N 73.95015°W / 40.8100472; -73.95015
Built/Founded: 1913[2]
Architect: George Keister
Architectural style(s): Classical Revival
Added to NRHP: November 17, 1983
Designated NYCL: June 28, 1983
NRHP Reference#: 83004059[1]

The Apollo Theater in New York City is one of the most famous music halls in the United States, and the most famous club associated almost exclusively with African-American performers. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places,[2] and is the home of Showtime at the Apollo, a nationally syndicated variety show consisting of new talent.

The theater is located at 253 W. 125th Street in the New York City borough of Manhattan, specifically in Harlem, one of the United States' most historically significant traditionally black neighborhoods.




Creation and rise

An Apollo Hall was founded in the mid-1800s by former Civil War General Edward Ferrero as a dance hall and ballroom. Upon the expiration of his lease in 1872, the building was converted to a theater, which closed shortly before the turn of the century.

However, the name "Apollo Theater" lived on. In 1913[2] or 1914,[3] a new building, designed by the architect George Keister,[4]and who also patterned the First Baptist Church in the City of New York, opened at 253 West 125th Street as Hurtig and Seamon's New (Burlesque) Theater,[2] operated by noted burlesque producers Jules Hurtig and Harry Seamon, who obtained a 30-year lease.[4] It remained in operation until 1928, when Bill Minsky took over.[citation needed] The song "I May Be Wrong (But I Think You're Wonderful)" by Harry Sullivan and Harry Ruskin, written in 1929, became the theme song of the theater.[citation needed]

Apollo Theater marquee, circa 1947

Sidney S. Cohen, president of the Motion Picture Theater Owners of America, purchased the Apollo in 1932[4] upon Minsky's death.[citation needed] Sources vary as to the next transfer. According to the Apollo Theater Foundation, Cohen sold it in 1934 to Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher,[4][3] who renamed the hall the 125 Street Apollo[5][4] and reopened it on January 26, 1934,[2] with an advertisement in the New York Age that referred to the Apollo as "the finest theater in Harlem".[citation needed] After Cohen's death, business partner Morris Sussman teamed with Schiffman, who ran the Harlem Opera House, and a merger between the two theaters was formed.[6]

The Harlem Renaissance was occurring at the time, following the World War I-era Great Migration of blacks from the southern U.S. states, and Schiffman and Brecher opened with "a colored review" entitled "Jazz a la Carte", featuring Ralph Cooper, Benny Carter and his orchestra, and "16 Gorgeous Hot Steppers",[4] with all proceeds donated to the Harlem Children's Fresh Air Fund.[6] Schiffman's motivation for featuring black talent and entertainment was not only because the neighborhood had become black over a long period of gradual migration, but because black entertainers were cheaper to hire, and Schiffman could offer quality shows for reasonable rates. For many years, Apollo was the only theater in New York City to hire black talent.[6]

Ella Fitzgerald made her singing debut at 17 at the Apollo, on November 21, 1934. Fitzgerald's performances pulled in a weekly audience at the Apollo and she won the opportunity to compete in one of the earliest of its "Amateur Nights". She had originally intended to go on stage and dance, but intimidated by the Edwards Sisters, a local dance duo, she opted to sing instead, in the style of Connee Boswell. She sang Hoagy Carmichael's "Judy" and "The Object of My Affection", a song recorded by the Boswell Sisters, and won the first prize of US$25.00.[7]

The Apollo grew to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance of the pre-World War II years. In 1934, it introduced its regular Amateur Night shows hosted by Ralph Cooper. 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, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Gladys Knight & The Pips, The Jackson 5, Patti LaBelle, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King, Mariah Carey, The Isley Brothers, Lauryn Hill, and Sarah Vaughan. The Apollo also featured the performances of old-time vaudeville favorites like Tim Moore, Stepin Fetchit, Godfrey Cambridge, Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham, and Johnny Lee. One unique feature of the Apollo was "the executioner" a man with a broom who would sweep performers off the stage if the highly vocal and opinionated audiences began to call for their removal.[8]

Later years and decline

On August 16, 1957, Buddy Holly was allegedly the first white rock and roll performer to play at the Apollo.[9] That claim is challenged by Jo-Ann Campbell who performed November 30, 1956, and also the week of May 3, 1957, Jimmy Cavallo and the House Rockers who say they performed there in December 1956,[10] and Dale Hawkins, who says he performed there in July 1957, about a month before Holly.[11][12][13] Jimi Hendrix won the first place prize in an amateur musician contest at the Apollo in 1964.[14]

The club fell into decline in the 1960s and 1970s, and was converted into a movie theater in 1975.[3]

Transformation and renovation

The inside of the theater as seen from the stage.

The Apollo was revived in 1983, when Inner City Broadcasting, a firm owned by former Manhattan borough president Percy E. Sutton purchased the building.[3] It obtained federal, state, and city landmark status, and fully reopened in 1985.[citation needed] The Little Rascals, produced by former actor Jimmy Hawkins, performed at a fiftieth anniversary show at the Apollo that year. The musical duo Hall & Oates played the grand reopening in 1987,[citation needed] which was released on an album that year.

In 1991, the Apollo was purchased by the State of New York.

On December 15, 2005, the Apollo Theater launched the first phase of its refurbishment, costing estimated $65 million. The first phase included the facade and the new light-emitting diode (LED) marquee. Attendees and speakers at the launch event included President Bill Clinton, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons.

On December 28, 2006, the body of James Brown, who had died a few days before, was displayed at an Apollo Theater memorial covered heavily by the news media.[citation needed]

As of 2009 it is run by the nonprofit Apollo Theater Foundation Inc., and draws an estimated 1.3 million visitors annually.[citation needed]

The Jazz Foundation of America has celebrated its annual benefit concert known as "A Great Night in Harlem" at the famous Apollo Theater for the every year since 2001. The concert will features over 50 musicians performing Big Band, Gospel, Jazz and Blues music. The event has been hosted by the likes of Bill Cosby, Danny Glover, Danny Aiello, Michael Imperioli, Mario Van Peebles and Chevy Chase. The performers include Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, Nora Jones, Dr. John, Sweet Georgia Brown,Dave Brubeck, Frank Fosters' Loud Minority Big Band, Gary Brown, Phil Woods, Frank Wess, Davell Crawford, Jimmy Heath, Randy Weston, Dr. Michael White's Original Liberty Brass Band, Cecil Bridgewater, Nnenna Freelon, Ron Carter, Odetta, Johnnie Mae Dunson, Beverly Watkins, and many others. [15] The Jazz Foundation of America [1] provides emergency assistance and long-term support to jazz and blues musicians. The foundation was a leading force in providing relief to Gulf Coast musicians after Hurricane Katrina.

Rock groups at the Apollo

While predominantly a black venue, many rock stars of the 1960s attended as audience members, but white rock music acts have made prominent appearances at varying points throughout the theater's history.

These include:

Hall Of Fame

The Apollo Theatre Legends Hall of Fame has inducted many of the entertainment world's greatest talents, past inductees include Smokey Robinson, Patti LaBelle,Quincy Jones,Ella Fitzgerald, The Pips, Michael Jackson and James Brown. [17], [18]

In popular culture

Musical act Gorillaz performing in 2006 on their Demon Days tour.
  • The Cosby Show intro theme for the 6th (1989) and 7th (1990) seasons shows pictures of the Apollo in the background.
  • In the episode of The Wayans Bros. episode, "Pop's Campaign", Shawn said to Pops, "You are shaking more than a white rapper at The Apollo".
  • Lou Reed makes a reference to the slow man saying "let there be light oh lord" and to the Apollo in his song "Walk On The Wild Side".
  • John Lennon's song, "New York City," from his 1972 album, Sometime in New York City includes the lyric, "We did the Staten Island ferry, making movies for the telly, played the Fillmore and Apollo for freedom."
  • Immortal Technique references the theater in his songs, "Crossing the Boundary" and "You Never Know."
  • The song "Without Love" from the Broadway musical Hairspray contains the line, "Without love, life is Doris Day at the Apollo."
  • In the Broadway production of Dreamgirls, the Apollo theater is where the Dreamettes enter a talent competition.
  • In the Futurama episode "Anthology of Interest", crustacean Dr. Zoidberg is grown to giant size and wreaks vengeful havoc on New New York. When he reaches the "famed Apollo Theatre" (his words), Zoidberg angrily yells, "Boo me off stage on Open Mic night, huh? I'll show you!!" and then kicks it to pieces.
  • Substantial parts of the film Down to Earth featuring Chris Rock take place at the Apollo.
  • In one Simpsons episode, Krusty the Klown, who on his show usually changes "C's" to "K's", held his unfortunately titled Krusty Komedy Klassic (KKK) at the Apollo Theater.
  • Robot Chicken did a segment setting a spelling bee at the Apollo.
  • A battle between the Hulk and the Abomination in the film The Incredible Hulk takes place outside the theater.[19]
  • The band Cobra Starship has a song on its album While the City Sleeps, We Rule the Streets entitled "It's Amateur Night at the Apollo Creed".


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "Apollo Theater", Britannica Online Encyclopedia, 2009; webpage: EB-Apollo-Theater.
  3. ^ a b c d Jackson, Kenneth T, editor, The Encyclopedia of New York City, Yale University Press, p.40
  4. ^ a b c d e f Apollo Theater Foundation press release: "Apollo 75th Anniversary: Milestones in Apollo Theater History", January 27, 2009
  5. ^ See photo of marquee, fifth photo from top, at "Historical Photos of the Apollo Theater"
  6. ^ a b c Fox, Ted (1983). Showtime at the Apollo (2nd Ed. ed.). New York, N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. pp. 60, 61. ISBN 0-03-060534-2-0. 
  7. ^ Jim Moret (1996-06-15). "'First Lady of Song' passes peacefully, surrounded by family". CNN. Retrieved 2007-01-30. 
  8. ^ Holloway, Lynette (1992-08-07). "Show Time for Sad Time at Apollo". New York Times. 
  9. ^ Daily Events - 1957
  10. ^ Jimmy Cavallo
  11. ^ Dale Hawkins (1936–) - Encyclopedia of Arkansas
  12. ^ Music: Still 'Q'-ed Up (The Boston Phoenix . 10-26-98)
  13. ^ Marv Goldberg's R&B Notebooks - SPANIELS
  14. ^
  15. ^ 2009-15-10. URL: Accessed: 2009-15-10. (Archived by at
  16. ^ Gorillaz To Play New York's Apollo Theater - News Story | Music, Celebrity, Artist News | MTV News
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^ Shawn Adler (2008-03-12). "'Incredible Hulk' Trailer: Shot-By-Shot Analysis Shows Green Guy Has Control Issues". MTV. Retrieved 2008-03-13. 

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