By Rhonda Campbell
For 77 years, Harlem’s historic Apollo Theatre has been bringing in legendary and amateur talent to entertain live audiences and television viewers. Referring to itself as “The Soul of American Culture,” the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York has spotlighted singers, musicians, dancers and other legendary performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson and The Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Bessie Smith, Lauryn Hill, Nancy Wilson, the Isley Brothers and Billie Holliday.
Harlem and the Apollo Theatre’s Amateur Night
Many entertainers got their start during Harlem’s Amateur Night. The audiences were some of the toughest in the world. If a singer was good, they were richly rewarded with loud rounds of applause. On the other hand, if a singer didn’t appeal to the audience, they were booed mercilessly then escorted off stage for all to see.
Amateur Night began in 1934. The show was held on Wednesday nights. It wasn’t long before the Apollo Theatre’s Amateur Night became the perfect stage for new acts to gain national exposure. Performers who did well on Wednesday nights could find their way onto more widely viewed television stations or shows like The Tonight Show, Good Day New York, Black Entertainment Television (BET) or Good Morning America.
Artists would rub the Harlem Apollo Theatre’s Tree of Hope before they took to the stage in the hopes that the tree would bring them good fortune. Some artists swore by the tree. But, nothing short of limitless talent, charisma, drive and resolve could bring the audiences to their feet during a performance. It was a great training ground, a make them or break them place full of promise, hope, and, for those who didn’t come with the skill, heartache.
Early Days at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre
The building that houses Harlem’s Apollo Theatre was built at the turn of the century in 1914 on Harlem’s 125th Street. African Americans were banned from entering the theatre when it was first constructed. At that time the theatre was called Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theatre, a name hardly anyone knows or remembers.
It wasn’t until 1934 when Ralph Cooper Sr. brought amateur night to the theatre that it began to gain renown. Ella Fitzgerald and Bessie Smith were two of the entertainers who performed at the Apollo Theatre during its early days. Their presence was a hint of what was to come.
In 1987 the Apollo Theatre brought its shows to a national television audience when it started its “Live At the Apollo” programming. Household name entertainers appeared on the stage in the heart of Harlem just as they had before. The difference this time was that at-home viewers could enjoy the same talent as the live audience members who frequented the theatre.
Harlem’s Apollo Theatre Now
Today the Apollo Theatre conducts historic tours for schools, other educational organizations and groups of 20 or more persons. The theatre also offers community outreach programs like its Harlem Summer Stage program where it offers concerts and dance free to the public. Other regular events include annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations, a literacy initiative and a food drive.
For students and aspiring performers, the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York offers seminars where students can connect with professional entertainers, ask entertainment professionals questions and learn about the artistic and business sides of the trade. High school students can take advantage of the theatre’s internship program. The intern program focuses on personal and career development and professional training.
Recently, the theatre showcased Dream Girls, the hit Broadway musical that was made into a major motion picture. Actors and actresses like Beyonce, Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson appeared in the movie version of the play that many claim is loosely based on the early performing lives of Diana Ross and the Supremes. Focused on reaching a global audience, the theatre recently took its famous “Apollo Amateur Night” to London. Artists like Lionel Richie were featured at the theatre’s “Spring Gala.” The changes are in keeping with the theatre’s long standing tradition of spotlighting the world’s best entertainment.
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