The Apollo Theatre ™, located in the community of Harlem in Manhattan in New York City, is a monument to the contributions of Black Americans to the entertainment industry. Built in 1913 and originally named Hurtig & Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater, it has at one time or another, played host to virtually every major Black entertainer over the past 70 years.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Harlem had become home to a large number of foreign immigrants, including Russian Jews, Germans, Italians and Irish. This started to shift partially due to a real estate collapse in 1904, which resulted in a drop in housing costs. By 1910, Blacks from all over New York City had begun to migrate to the area between 135th and 145th streets in Harlem. Due to this migration, Harlem’s entertainment scene changed dramatically. The years from 1910-1920 saw the establishment of Negro theater in Harlem. For the first time, there were Black performers for Black audiences. This was the Harlem Renaissance, and the Hurtig & Seamon Theater was right in the middle of it.
Billy Minsky operated the first “Apollo Theatre” in Harlem, named Minsky’s Apollo Theatre (later to be known as the “Little Apollo”). In 1924 the theatre primarily featured burlesque dancers. To stay competitive, Hurtig and Seamon installed a runway in their theater and booked even more exciting burlesque dancers than the Minsky theater. In 1927 the two major burlesque organizations, from which both theaters were getting their acts, merged and the next year Billy Minsky took over Hurtig & Seamon’s theater, by then known as the Apollo Theatre.
After a few years of success, Minsky turned his attention to one of his other theaters and the Apollo Theater began to decline. Billy Minsky died in 1932 and Sidney Cohen bought the Apollo Theatre. Under Cohen’s management Black performers became the rule, rather than the exception. It was during this time that the Apollo became a Black vaudeville house, reflecting the changes in Harlem entertainment. In 1935 Sidney Cohen died and the partnership of Brecher and Schiffman bought the theater. The new managers instituted a permanent variety show format featuring top Black performers. During the Depression years, the Apollo Theatre began its format of live entertainment, seven days a week, twelve months a year.
Over the next few decades, the Apollo Theatre became the place to perform if you were a rising Black musician. Most Black entertainers knew that Harlem recognized no popular entertainer until he or she had appeared and excelled at the Apollo. The Apollo became famous for its Wednesday night amateur contest, which continues today. Past winners of this contest include Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn. Besides the theater, the Apollo audience is legendary as well. Indeed, more than one “top” performer has met with boos and hisses if his performance was not up to par.
By the 1970’s, the Apollo Theatre was no longer a financially successful business due to the rise of recording technology and an increased demand for artists, falling into bankruptcy in 1979. Two years later former Manhattan Bourough President Percy Sutton’s Inner City Broadcasting Corporation bought the building. The legendary theater was designated a New York City landmark and listed on the National Register of historic places. The theater experienced a brief revival and hosted many nationally televised events between 1983-1991.
In 1992, the Apollo Theatre Foundation, Inc. (the Apollo), a non-profit organization was founded. The Apollo Theatre Foundation is the sole entity with complete responsibility for operating the theatre. Its mission is to ensure the revitalization and restoration of the historic theatre.
In 1995, Grace Blake, a 25 year veteran of the film/motion picture industrybecame the non-profits’ Executive Director. Since Ms. Blake’s arrival, she has implemented strong community program, as well as produced a number of programs. In 1995, she produced A Tribute to Lionel Hampton, and currently hosted Tony Bennett’s first solo concert performance at the theatre in February 1997.
Amateur Night at the Apollo™
Since 1935, Ralph Cooper’s unique concept that showcases today’s Amateurs and tomorrow’s stars continues every Wednesday night.
The Apollo Theatre is one of Harlem’s best known landmarks. It serves as a connection to our past and a tribute to our future.
1935 – Bessie Smith, “Empress of Blues,” plays the Apollo on New Year’s Eve.
1937 – Count Basie plays the Apollo with Billie Holiday as his featured vocalist.
1943 – Sarah Vaughn wins the amateur contest at the Apollo and joins Earl Hines’ band as the vocalist.
1945 – Nat “King” Cole and his trio play the Apollo and are held over for a second week.
1946 – Lionel Hampton’s band, enjoying high popularity, performs 7 shows a day for a week at the Apollo.
1947 – Sammy Davis Jr. appears at the Apollo as a dancer in the Will Matsin Trio.
1956 – James Brown wins the amateur contest. He has borrowed all of his clothes for his performance, including his white sneakers.
1962 – Berry Gordy’s Motown Revue, featuring The Miracles, Mary Wells, The Marvelettes, The Contours, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes and Stevie Wonder, plays the Apollo.
1968 – Bill Cosby, then star of “I Spy,” plays the Apollo. Eleven-year-old Stephanie Mills wins the amateur contest for six consecutive weeks.
1969 – The Jackson Five wins the Amateur Night contest. Michael Jackson is 9 years old.
1981 – Inner City Broadcasting Corporation, owned by New York businessman and former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, buys the Apollo Theatre.
1983 – The Apollo Theatre receives federal, state and city landmark status.
1992 – The Apollo Theatre Foundation, a non-profit organization, buys the Apollo Theatre.
1993 – Prince plays the Apollo in an exclusive VH1 Concert.
1997 – Tony Bennett plays the Apollo in his first solo concert performance at the theatre. He sang in tribute to the legendary Billie Holiday.
253 West 125th Street
New York, NY 10027