The legacy of the Apollo Theater stretches much farther than its location on 125th Street in culturally rich Harlem. Since its inception, it has become a must-stop venue for not just New York City tourists, but also for dreamers who hope to make it big in show business. Some of America’s biggest stars (James Brown, Michael Jackson, Lauryn Hill, to name a few) have rubbed the storied Tree of Hope and performed at Amateur Night before their careers launched. Paving the way for talent search contests like Star Search, American Idol and The Voice, Amateur Night at the Apollo has relied on audience participation to identify world-class talent for generations. As the theater celebrates its 80th anniversary this month, take a look at eight decades of talent and history at one of the most famous theaters in the world.
Twenty years before the Apollo Theater opened on Jan. 26, 1934, it was home to a whites-only burlesque theater called Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater.
In 1934, the building reopened as the 125th Street Apollo Theater, and weekly Amateur Night began on Wednesdays, where talented—and not-so talented—black performers took the stage in front of a highly critical audience.
Frank Schiffman was the first manager of the Apollo Theater, and by the late ‘30s, he had helped the theater to become the largest employer of black theatrical workers in the country.
The Tree of Hope was located outside another black Harlem business, the Harlem Lafayette Theater. When trees outside the theater were cut down, this stump was preserved and still sits on the stage at the Apollo to offer a touch of hope for contestants.
Ella Fitzgerald was one of the very first winners of the talent contest in 1934. "Ella Fitzgerald came to amateur night and she wanted to dance. She saw the [dance] performers before her and she got scared," Jonelle Procope, the president and CEO of the Apollo Theater Foundation, told AM New York. "She said, 'Well, I can sing a little,' and the rest is history.”
The stage at the Apollo wasn’t only for singers. Comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley was one of a few comedians who performed there regularly during the ‘30s.
The Nicholas Brothers tapped their way into the hearts of many during their performances on the Apollo stage.
Showtime at the Apollo made its first broadcast in 1955. Some of the performers included Sarah Vaughn, the Count Basie Orchestra and Nipsey Russell, with jazz bandleader Willie Bryant serving as host.
Winners of Amateur Night in the '60s included Jimi Hendrix and Gladys Knight.
In 1962, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, recorded his Live at the Apollo album. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked the album as No. 25 on the top 500 greatest albums of all time.
In 1967, the Jackson 5 won the Amateur Night competition. We couldn’t find video of their performance, but remember Jason Weaver’s portrayal of Michael Jackson in the VH1 TV movie, The Jacksons: An American Dream?
The '70s were financially hard for the Apollo, and Bobby Schiffman, Frank’s son, temporarily closed the theater in 1976. It reopened briefly in ’78 under new management.
The '80s provided a bit more financial stability for the theater. Percy Sutton and a group of private investors purchased the Apollo in 1981. Two years later, the theater was designated as a city and state landmark and was recognized as Harlem’s oldest surviving theater.
On May 5, 1985, the Apollo Theater celebrated its 50th anniversary with a televised tribute concert called Motown Returns to the Apollo. The special, hosted by Bill Cosby, featured the Temptations, the Four Tops and Diana Ross.
In September 1987, Showtime at the Apollo aired for the first time on NBC. Throughout its 21-year run, the broadcast had a number of hosts, including Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Harvey, Mo’Nique, Martin Lawrence and several others.
Kiki Shepard co-hosted the show for 15 years, from its inception until 2002. Shepard was known for her stunning dresses and for presenting the contestants before the audience voted for the night’s winner.
Howard “Sandman” Sims, a notable tap dancer, would usher performers off-stage if the crowd booed. Sims, like Bob Collins before him, was reprising the “Porto Rico” character that stagehand Norman Miller created when the Apollo Theater first opened. You’ll also remember Sims in this memorable “chaaallllleeeennggee” on The Cosby Show.
In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, some of our favorite artists took to the Apollo stage. Lauryn Hill was booed at 13, Jazmine Sullivan performed a rousing rendition of “Accept What God Allows” at 11 and Ne-Yo, going by the name “Gogo,” performed with a group.
When James Brown died in 2006, thousands of fans filled 125th Street outside of the Apollo Theater to pay their respects.
In 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama made a campaign stop at the Apollo Theater. After his election in 2008, and his reelection in 2012, Harlem residents crowded the streets to celebrate the first black president.
Michael Jackson, another son of the Apollo Theater, was mourned in the Harlem streets in 2009.
Showtime at the Apollo was revived in 2012 when BET Networks began airing Apollo Live. With host Tony Rock and judges Gladys Knight, Doug E. Fresh and Michael Bivins, a new generation of performers is able to put their talents on display.
The Apollo will celebrate its 80th year with a free open house weekend for guests on Feb. 8 and 9. Visitors can learn about the Apollo’s history, watch live performances and find out about the theater’s exciting future.