When you think of Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater, you may hear the theme song for “Showtime at the Apollo.” You might even think of Steve Harvey as a host saying “Everybody Show Your Love forâ¦” but, most important you think about the seemingly endless roster of talent that have graced the stage.
While the Apollo is known as one of the first nationally recognized venues for African American artists and audiences, it’s signature claim to fame is ‘Showtime at the Apollo”. The nationally syndicated Showtime at The Apollo put many amateurs on the map, and for outside the states, it introduced the famed Apollo Theater to the world. But that is merely a cliff note to the storied History of the Apollo Theater. As we celebrate Black Music Month, it is only fitting to retrace the roots of the Apollo to note those who began their careers on that hallowed stage and to pay homage to the 75 year old musical institution.
The theatre was constructed in 1914, in the heart of Harlem, 125th Street. In the beginning, it was a burlesque theatre named Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theatre. African Americans were not even allowed in the audience, let alone on stage. The game changed in 1934 when building owner Sidney Cohen, after buying out Hurtig and Seamon’s lease two years prior, renamed the theatre “125th Street Apollo Theatre.” He then changed the format of their shows from burlesque to variety reviews, and shifted the spotlight to Harlem’s African American Community.
On Friday January 26, 1934 the Apollo officially welcomed an African American audience for the first time and featured “A Colored Revue” called “Jazz a la Carte,” which included Ralph Cooper Sr., Benny Carter and his orchestra and “16 Gorgeous Hotsteppers”. Cooper decided to do a live version of his popular “Harlem Amateur Hour Radio Show” at the Apollo. The show was eventually renamed Amateur Nite Hour at the Apolloâ¢. Ella Fitzgerald, who invented the vocal technique known as SCAT , was one of the first Amateur Night winners. Amateur Night is Apollo’s most recognizable and longest running performance series.
In 1935, Bessie Smith made her Apollo debut followed by an unknown vocalist by the name of Billie Holiday who graced the Apollo stage and mesmerized the audience with her undeniable style and talent. Soon thereafter, the Apollo Theater quickly became known as the place “Where Stars are Born and Legends are Made”â¢ and “home” to thousands of major performance artists, fans, and patrons of the arts from around the world.
The legendary venue has launched the careers of icons such as Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, James Brown and Lauryn Hill and continues uphold its mission of honoring and advancing the contributions of African American artists.
—— By: Lauren Walker