by Ted Fox
Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater turns 80 today.
The theater is thriving and vibrant and looks wonderful, thanks to millions in renovations. It continues to lure superstars from Jay-Z to Paul McCartney, and the Apollo was recently the placePresident Obama serenaded Al Green with his own lyrics.
This is a triumph but also a problem, as the Apollo figures out how to keep its doors open in a transitional neighborhood while serving what is still the heart and soul of New York’s African-American community. But the unprecedented creative thinking, hard work, adaptability, and innovation that has kept the Apollo going for all this time will continue to serve it well.
The Apollo has always been a special place for the African-American community. While a night out at the Apollo was exciting and enjoyable, it was also something far more for its community and performers alike. It was home to the performers who, along with the audience and the owners, comprised the Apollo family. It was a family that often scrapped, a family of sibling love and rivalry, but one bound together by shared experiences, hopes and ambitions. The Apollo uniquely fulfilled and satisfied this role in the cultural and social history of a community, a city, a people, and its artists.
In the early days admission was as little as ten cents and one could stay all day for multiple shows. Many did, and sometimes mothers would bring their children and a bag lunch, and the Apollo became a de facto day care center. Unlike any other cultural institution the Apollo was an oasis of comfort, security, and relaxation for its community. For those who felt they had to remain constrained in the outside world, in the Apollo anyone could be at ease, let it all out, relax and be yourself. There were no constraints at the Apollo except self-imposed and self-enforced ones instituted out of respect for that special place.
Within the cold, painted cement walls of the theatre’s thirteen dressing rooms on four floors beat the heart of the Apollo. There Louis Armstrong entertained guests and well wishers in his underwear. James Brown held court. Ella Fitzgerald set out her usual spread of fried chicken, cold drinks and watermelon. There advice was given and lessons learned. Deals were made. Songs, dance steps and comedy bits were created and honed. The Apollo was the tap root of the Harlem entertainment grapevine. The pay phone backstage was the home office. Any performer in the Apollo family could sleep backstage in a dressing room if he didn’t have a place to stay. There were always entertainers just hanging out.
In my book, Showtime at the Apollo, Gladys Knight described the women hanging off the fire escape on 126th Street watching the male performers’ fierce pick-up basketball games in the schoolyard across the street. Many performers got sucked into the non-stop card games of Tonk in the basement, including Redd Foxx and even (with his valet whispering his cards), Ray Charles.
As it turns 80, the Apollo Theater remains at the heart of the African-American community – the place that legends still call home – as it’s been since 1934.
Smokey Robinson and George Clinton come back to play the Apollo. James Brown celebrated his 70thbirthday there shortly before his death, then lay in state at the Apollo as tens of thousands paid their respects. Top black pop stars, including Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige and P. Diddy, trod the Apollo stage, following in the footsteps of Nat King Cole, Dionne Warwick and Johnny Mathis. The Roots bring the sounds of the street into the theater like the Orioles in their day.
The Apollo’s “Latin Nites” series continues the vibrant tradition of Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria. Wynton Marsalis carries the Apollo jazz standard of Dizzy Gillespie. On his HBO special, Chris Rock shocked and slayed the Apollo crowd, summoning memories of Redd Foxx. Whoopi Goldberg kicked off her first tour in a decade at The Apollo, paying homage to the theater as Bill Cosby did before her. Anxious neophytes continue flocking to Amateur Night, hoping to make it big by touching The Tree of Hope.
Through good times and bad, changes in time, taste and technologies, it will always be “Showtime at the Apollo.”