The Apollo Theater was constructed on 125th Street in Harlem, New York. It was originally Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theatre, and African American admissions were not permitted. It originally featured burlesque, however, the city’s mayor at the time, Fiorello La Guardia, did not like burlesque, and campaigned about it. In January, 1934, African Americans began to perform, and the attention shifted from Burlesque, to the new celebration of Black culture in New York City.
During the swing era, along with bands such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Andy Kirk, the Apollo also presented dance acts such as the Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, the Berry Brothers and Buck and Bubbles. The Apollo also featured the performances of old-time vaudeville favorites like Tim Moore, Stepin Fetchit, Moms Mabley, Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, Clinton “Dusty” Fletcher, John “Spider Bruce” Mason, and Johnny Lee, as well as younger comics like Godfrey Cambridge, Richard Pryor and Red Foxx.
Gospel acts which played the Apollo include the Staple Singers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Clara Ward and Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers.Performers of soul music on the Apollo stage included Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, and jazz was represented as well, by acts such as Art Blakey and Horace Silver.
When Amateur Night at the Apollo debuted in 1934, it 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.
Amateur Night at the Apollo celebrated its 75th Anniversary in 2009 as the quintessential talent competition, serving as the model for Star Search and American Idol. Competitions are held nearly every Wednesday evening throughout the year, culminating with the “Super Top Dog” competition. The show marries world-class talent with a distinctive, vaudeville-like atmosphere, and has depended on audience participation since the very beginning.
In 1983, the Apollo received state and city landmark status and in 1991, Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc., was established as a private, not-for-profit organization to manage, fund and oversee programming for the Apollo Theater. Today, the Apollo, which functions under the guidance of a Board of Directors, presents concerts, performing arts, education and community outreach programs.
In 2001, the architecture firms Beyer Blinder Belle, which specializes in restorations of historic buildings, and Davis Brody Bond began a restoration of the theater’s interior. In 2005, restoration of the exterior, and the installation of a new light-emitting diode (LED) marquee began. In 2009-10, in celebration of the theater’s 75 anniversary, the theater put together an archive of historical material, including documents and photographs and began an oral history project.
The Apollo Theater draws an estimated 1.3 million visitors annually.