Entertainment & Arts

Why is the Harlem Apollo Theater so important?

Apollo Theatre Image copyright Press still
Image caption The Apollo began life as a venue for burlesque shows

It launched the careers of James Brown and the Jacksons, and now the Apollo Theatre is celebrating its 80th birthday. A star-studded gala including appearances by Gladys Knight, Natalie Cole and Doug E Fresh took place at the venue earlier this week - but how did the venue become so important to soul music?

The shining lights of the Apollo sign are a beacon for tourists rushing through 125th street in central Harlem.

But to understand the Apollo's past is to understand the struggles of Harlem itself.

Designed by New York architect George Keister, it began life in 1913 as a burlesque theatre, restricted solely to white patrons.

In 1932, though, burlesque was banned by New York's mayor. The venue languished for two years, during which time it fell into disrepair, before theatre impresario Sidney S Cohen took on the lease, renaming it The Apollo, after the Greek God of music.

Image copyright Apollo Theater Foundation
Image caption Stevie Wonder was a young teenager when he first performed at the legendary venue

This was at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance - a cultural, social, and artistic explosion amongst the African-American middle class, which had strong links to the civil rights movement.

Cohen decided the Apollo would be the first theatre to allow black people to perform, at a time when African-Americans were forbidden from entering most theatres in the US.

Billy Mitchell, affectionately known as "Mr Apollo" has been here on and off for 49 years. He started running errands for the Apollo back in 1965, when he was 15 years old. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. Now he's the in-house historian and tour director.

"I started meeting all the stars that were performing here," he says.

"Imagine, I saw Stevie Wonder when he was 15. Eventually, I saw Michael Jackson and his brothers. Michael was nine years old when they first came and performed on the Amateur Night.

"And there was James Brown, who I met and who convinced me the importance of getting a good education.

"He kept asking how my grades were going. He would give me money if the grades were taking off. He convinced me to raise my hand in class if there was a time the teacher was teaching something I didn't understand."

Image copyright Allen Carrasco
Image caption Billy Mitchell has worked at the theatre for nearly 50 years and is now the in-house historian

Billy teaches people the true history of the Apollo. "One might think this is a black theatre because they always show black people. The truth is that every race, every culture, every ethnic group has contributed to the theatre's history: white people, black people, Latino, Asian, Indian.

"But the emphasis is always on African-Americans, and I think that's because we have put the largest impact on this theatre. Our culture has been the most dominant."

For 40 years, the Apollo launched the careers of anyone who was anybody in music, dance and comedy - including Bill Cosby, Jimi Hendrix and tap dancers the Nicholas Brothers.

"They appeared there because they didn't have any other place to go," says the current boss, Jonelle Procope.

"They weren't allowed in mainstream establishments. And so when they were on the Apollo stage, they weren't legends. So that's why I call it a place of opportunity. They became legends after they appeared on the Apollo stage.

Image copyright Apollo Theater Foundation
Image caption James Brown was another of the many artists who made their name at the theatre

"Elvis Presley visited the theatre numerous times when he came to New York for his television appearances. The first place the Beatles wanted to see when they came to America was the Apollo. Just recently, in 2010, Paul McCartney played the Apollo and he referred to it as the 'Holy Grail'," she says.

"I have loved performing at the Apollo over the years," says jazz legend Tony Bennett. "When you perform there, you are performing for America's greatest audience.

"But, you have to be truly talented," he warns. "As great as Ella Fitzgerald, who won the amateur contest there when she was just 15 years old.

"If you don't have what it takes, the audience lets you know right away and the hook comes out and pulls you off the stage!"

Dionne Warwick was one of the artists to survive the legendary amateur night, with her gospel group The Gospel-Aires.

"The atmosphere was wonderful," she tells the BBC, "and we felt great since we WON!

"To play the Apollo is the true proving ground. It was, and still is, the true test of an artist."

James Brown appeared at the Apollo more than anyone else. The stage was his second home, and when he cut a live album there in 1963, Rolling Stone credited it with "establishing Brown as an R&B superstar and a sales force to be reckoned with".

When he died, his body was bought back to the venue ahead of his funeral.

But Brown's album came at the end of an era. After the Civil Rights Act and desegregation in the 1960s, African-American performers were welcomed into other venues and the Apollo's competition increased. By the mid-1970s, the theatre was bankrupt.

It was saved in the 1980s by a well-known Harlem businessman Percy Sutton, but even he found it did not work as a commercial establishment. There are only 1,500 seats, so ticket sales barely covered costs.

Image copyright Shahar Azran
Image caption Gladys Knight performed at the 80th birthday celebrations in New York

So, in 1991 the state of New York acquired the theatre, and a non-profit foundation was organised to run it. Simultaneously, the venue was given a 99-year lease at a cost of $1 per year.

Jonelle Procope has been at the helm for the past 11 years. She says the venue's non-profit status allows it to focus on what's really important - supporting the community, not just through music, but also through education and outreach programmes.

"Apollo, throughout its history, has always been integral to the uptown community and 125th street," she says. "More importantly and emotionally it has always been a place of opportunity."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Bennett calls the Apollo "Harlem's Carnegie Hall"

Local musician Swave Sevah has observed the changes over the years.

Sevah was inspired to become a musician by the acts that passed through the Apollo - but he thinks the venue isn't as important as it used to be.

"At one point it seemed like the Apollo was one of the main outlets," he says. "If you played there, your career would have took off. I don't think that is the case anymore. The young generation just don't appreciate it the way we did."

Tony Bennett disagrees. "There is no place on earth like the Apollo," he says.

"It's Harlem's Carnegie Hall - and I hope it stands for another 80 years."

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