The Apollo Theatre: Historic and Happening

  • March 17, 2015
The Apollo today.

The Apollo today.

Located in Harlem, the Apollo Theatre has a history that includes a wide range of entertainments, performances, and appearances, including vaudeville shows, big bands, jazz, rhythm and blues, dance performances, comedians, speakers of national and international stature and much more. Although the entire building was designated as a New York City Landmark in 1983 and the Apollo Theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places, it is still a vital and influential performance venue.

Beginnings

Hurtig and Seamon's New Burlesque Theatre.

Hurtig and Seamon’s

The theatre would not be christened the “Apollo” until 1934. Originally, the building, which was designed by architect George Keister and built in 1913-1914, was named Hurtig and Seamon’s New Theater. (It was also known as Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater.) It was a “whites only” venue that was run by Hurtig amd Seamon until 1928 when Billy Minsky, of the famous Minsky’s burlesque family, took control of the space.

However, the stock market crash took its toll on various forms of entertainment, including burlesque and the theatre failed and closed in the early 1930s. Sidney Cohen, who owned other venues in the area, purchased the theatre in 1933 and renovated it extensively. The space, now named the Apollo Theatre, reopened on January 20, 1934 with a new focus. This time it featured performances for what was a growing black population in Harlem and a buoyant artistic movement that spanned the 1920s and went into the 30s known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The shows at the newly refurbished theatre were of the vaudeville/variety type. The initial offering was Clarence Robinson’s production Chocolate Soldiers, which featured Sam Wooding’s Orchestra and starred jazz singer and Broadway favorite Adelaide Hall. It garnered good press and had a strong limited run.

Rich History

Performances at the Apollo included skits, variety, and musicals.

Performances at the Apollo included skits, variety, and musicals.

In 1934, the Apollo Theatre began holding its amateur nights, which it still runs today. Those who were “discovered” during these amateur nights include 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..

A typical headliner bill.

A typical headliner bill.

Others who have played the Apollo include Bessie Smith, Lena Horne, Count Bassie, Billy Eckstine, Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Wilson, Duke Ellington, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Holly and his group were accidentally booked into the venue by a promoter who thought they were black. Thus, in 1957, Buddy Holly and the Crickets became the first white group to play the Apollo. Unlike in the movie The Buddy Holly Story, they were not an instant success. It took several performances before the Apollo audiences accepted them warmly.

Taking the Tour

The Apollo Theater, which is located at 253 West 125th Street in New York City, offers tours of the 1506-seat theatre. Discover the legends, on stage performances, and diverse history that define the space as one of New York’s most influential performance venues. For more information and discount rates on the one-hour Apollo Theatre tour contact All Tickets Inc. at 1-800-922-0716.

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