Apollo Theater marks 80th year on Sunday

Billy Mitchell, the Apollo Theater's own tour director and in-house historian, discusses its history, as the famous stage prepares for its 80th birthday. Videojournalist: Jeremy Bales (Jan. 17, 2014)

Billy Mitchell, the Apollo Theater's own tour director and in-house historian, discusses its history, as the famous stage prepares for its 80th birthday. Videojournalist: Jeremy Bales (Jan. 17, 2014)

advertisement | advertise on newsday

The iconic Apollo Theater -- whose stage has been graced by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to James Brown, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and even President Barack Obama -- turns 80 years old Sunday.

While Harlem has had its ups and downs over the decades, the theater has remained a beacon of hope for anyone dreaming to make it big, according to the Apollo's managers.

"There's something about this place," said Mikki Shepard, the Apollo's executive producer. "It's almost like sacred ground, because everyone who comes in just feels so pumped."

During its anniversary celebration during the next few weeks, its administrators said they will share with visitors the deep history of the Apollo while advancing its signature style into the 21st century.

The Apollo opened on Jan. 26, 1934, a year after the original venue at 253 W. 125th St., Hurtig and Seamon's New Burlesque Theater, shut down.

Jonelle Procope, president and chief executive of the Apollo Theater Foundation, said the theater's original owner, Sidney Cohen, and manager, Morris Sussman, had a vision that attracted a crowd to the location by focusing on recruiting acts from the black artistic community.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

The buzz grew quickly, as up-and-coming artists discovered that the theater's stage was one of a kind, Procope said.

"It's an intimate and up-close and personal experience," she said. "The artists have always felt so close to their audience."What put the 1,503-seat theater in the spotlight was its weekly amateur night, which was spearheaded by actor and producer Ralph Cooper. The Wednesday night show paved the way for dozens of musical legends, including Brown, Count Basie and Lauryn Hill.

Procope said the Apollo changed the way artists develop because the theater encouraged them to explore new ground."Ella Fitzgerald came to amateur night and she wanted to dance. She saw the [dance] performers before her and she got scared," Procope said. Cooper told Fitzgerald she had to go out onto the stage and asked her what else she could do, Procope said.

"She said, 'Well I can sing a little,' and the rest is history," Procope said.

Despite its success and popularity, the theater had problems during the 1970s, when Harlem saw an uptick in crime, and the doors were shut in 1976. It reopened briefly in 1978 and '79.


A major revival didn't occur until 1981, when political activist and Apollo supporter Percy Sutton bought and reopened the theater, creating a television production studio that showcased concerts, events and talent throughout the world, especially through the late-night syndicated "Showtime at the Apollo" show.

"The Apollo is the economic engine of 125th Street," Procope said.Shepard said the Apollo's story is really just beginning. During the past couple years, she and her fellow producers have embraced social media and the new generation of young, diverse artists that call Harlem home.

The Apollo now includes spoken word performances and develops dance performances and musicals such as "James Brown: Get on the Good Foot," which celebrates the life and times of the theater's famous alum. All amateur night performances are posted online.

"It brings something different but it's still the same DNA, finding emerging artists and celebrating them," Shepard said of the digital push.

At the same time, the producer said the theater is now collaborating with other city arts venues, such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, for joint ventures that combine their styles and artists.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Special events are scheduled for the rest of the year. They will be revealed next week as part of the anniversary celebration.

Although the organizers couldn't give more details about their programming, they promised that it will give audiences a chance to see the last eight decades in a new light

"I want them to learn about the history that they didn't know about," Shepard said.

The best of Newsday every day in your inbox. Get the Newsday Now newsletter!


Newsday.com now uses Facebook for our comment boards. Please read our guidelines and connect your Facebook account to comment.

You also may be interested in: