Recently the descriptive "legend" has been bestowed willy-nilly on recipients of ephemeral celebrity and of dubious merit and accomplishment. But the Apollo Theater in Harlem, N.Y. is a genuine legend, equal, and even superior to any music theater in the world.
The Classical Revival style building at 253 West 125th street in Harlem was designed by George Keiser and built in 1913-14 as the Hurtig & Seamon's Burlesque Theater, which had a "Whites Only" policy that was rigorously enforced. By the early 1930s, the place fell into disrepair and closed. Sidney Cohen, who owned several theaters in Harlem, bought and renovated the theater, renaming it "Apollo Theater" that catered to the Black residents of the area.
The "Apollo" faced stiff competition from other music halls, especially Schiffman's "Lafayette" and Brecher's "Harlem Opera House" that booked dynamic acts, such as Bill `Bogangles' Robinson and Louis Armstrong. After Cohen died, Schiffman and Brecher took over the "Apollo" and progressed from vaudeville acts to swing era big bands, comic acts, dance and variety shows.
The theater became a gathering place for the neighborhood; men, women and children would flock to the Apollo, when it opened its doors at 10 AM, and some would stay all day through the night to watch the multiple shows offered. Cartoons and newsreel were usually followed by a full length feature fim. <And at last the master of ceremonies would announce, to the rising applause and screams from the audience: "Ladies and gentlemen, it's showtime at the Apollo!" Ba-ba-boom, the band would break into the Apollo theme song, "I May Be Wrong (But I Think You're Wonderful)," written in 1929 by Harry Sullivan and Harry Ruskin, and the show was rolling >.
"Where stars are born and legends are made" was no idle boast from the "Apollo". A pantheon of future stars, black and white, were launched from its stage; Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Moms Mabley, the Staple Singers, Richard Pryor, Sam Cooke, Harry James, Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, Stevie Wonder and myriad others performed at the "Apollo". Every Monday evening `Amateur Night' was broadcast on the 12 radio stations and hopeful performers would rub the Tree of Hope stump and later be chased by the "Executioner" or `Porto Rico', if booed by the rowdy audience. Ella Fitzgerald, Thelma Carpenter and Jimi Hendrix were First Prize winners of the competition.
In 1962, James Brown and the Famous Flames, recorded the first `Live at the Apollo'. The album was a hit and a precursor to a series of live recordings by many artists from the "Apollo".
"Showtime at the Apollo " by Ted Fox was originally published in 1983 and went to 3 editions, it has now been revived and has not lost any of its appeal. Fox has written the definitive history of the Apollo theater in Harlem, from its inception as a burlesque venue, reserved exclusively for Whites, to its metamorphosis into an iconic cultural center for African Americans and the entire nation. The author traces the genesis of the theater, the rise of the venue during the "Harlem Renaissance" to its deterioration during the neighborhood's decay by drug infestation, and finally to its rebirth under new ownership in 1980s.
Through personal interviews, first source documentation, photo archives and in-depth research, Ted Fox has written a respectful, honest and unvarnished tribute to what is arguably the greatest music hall in the nation, equal to the venerable "Moulin Rouge" in Paris.
Anyone interested in American music and/or African American history will find this to be a terrific resource and a great addition to any library.
Full disclosure: I was asked by the publisher to review this complimentary EBook.