Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Apollo Theater is one of the oldest and most famous music halls in the US, and the most famous club associated almost exclusively with African-American performers. Billing itself as a place “where stars are born and legends are made”, the Apollo became famous for launching the careers of such artists as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
The theatre is located in Harlem, one of the United States’ most historically significant, traditionally African-American neighbourhoods. For many years, the Apollo was the only theatre in New York City to hire black people.
Ella Fitzgerald made her singing debut at 17 at the Apollo, on November 21, 1934. Her 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. 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 $25.
The Apollo Theater also elevated the careers of 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. Jimi Hendrix won the first place prize in an amateur musician contest at the Apollo in 1964.
The place also featured the performances of old-time vaudeville favourites like Tim Moore, Stepin Fetchit and Johnny Lee, as well as younger comics like Godfrey Cambridge.
One unique feature of the Apollo during Amateur Nights 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.
The Apollo Hall was founded in the mid 19th century by former Civil War General Edward Ferrero as a dance hall and ballroom. The Apollo grew to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance of the pre-World War II years. The decades of 1960s and 1970s were tough for the club but in the mid 1980s, its glory has been restored.
Upon the expiration of Ferrero’s lease in 1872, the building was converted to a theatre, which closed shortly before the turn of the 19th to 20th century. Around 1914, a new building opened, called Hurtig and Seamon’s New (Burlesque) Theater. It was operated by noted burlesque producers Jules Hurtig and Harry Seamon, who obtained a 30-year lease.
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. The next decades were marked by the performances of contemporary stars and those then unknown, who would later became great music stars. The club fell into decline in the 1960s and 1970s, and was converted to a cinema in 1975. The Apollo was revived eight years later and re-opened in 1985. It obtained federal, state, and city landmark status.
In December 2005, its refurbishment started, costing an estimated $65 million. The first phase included the façade and a new LED canopy. The launch event was attended by, among others, former US president Bill Clinton, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons.