“When you’ve been through an Apollo show, you’re in no mood for the inferior talent of Hollywood,” reads a Spectator article from April 1936. The author, Robert P. Smith, had no patience for fellow Columbians who had not yet paid a visit to the then two-year-old Harlem theater.
“If you don’t know about the Apollo, it’s time you did: If you’re that ignorant, it stopped being a burlesque house many years ago and since has been the home of the finest Negro bands and entertainers when they hit New York,” he wrote.
The Apollo Theater, if you’re that ignorant, first opened its doors in 1934. Replacing a whites-only burlesque theater that had fallen into disrepair, the Apollo set out to cater expressly to the black community of Harlem. For the last 80 years, the theater has commanded local and international importance in the music industry.
This weekend, in honor of the Apollo’s 80th anniversary, the theater will be transformed into a Jazz Age nightclub, with dances and vocal performances running nightly from Feb. 20 to 23.
The Apollo’s website advises attendees to “put on your best suit or break out your silk gloves” for the event, which “celebrates the glorious musical legacy of the Apollo Theater,” particularly the music of the 1930s and 1940s.
Maurice Hines, the host, director, and choreographer of the four-night event, is a legendary dancer who began his career at the Apollo.
Hines was raised in Washington Heights in the 1940s. He and his brother Gregory had the benefit of studying with Henry LeTang, a Harlem-born tap choreographer and instructor who taught many of the most famous black dancers of the era.
Even before he turned 12 and began touring nightclubs with Gregory, Maurice was performing at the Apollo. Spending each night there, the brothers were exposed to artists who would influence their style throughout their long careers.
Tapping alongside Hines this weekend will be the Manzari Brothers, whom Hines discovered while teaching a master class at their high school in Washington, D.C.
“They reminded me so much of Gregory and myself when we were that age,” Hines told NPR in an interview in 2010. He later offered the brothers, John and Leo, roles in a production of “Sophisticated Ladies,” in which he also performed.
The 80th anniversary shows at the Apollo will also feature the vocals of Margot Bingham, an actress and vocalist who plays a Prohibition-era jazz singer on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
In November, Bingham told Pittsburgh City Paper that the role has expanded her knowledge of the music the Apollo hopes to showcase the weekend. “I was definitely listening to ’40s and ’50s jazz, always, my whole life,” she said. “So when I started listening to some of the ’20s music, and focusing more on that as the character, I kind of placed that as her voice.”
Located on West 125th Street in the heart of Harlem, the Apollo has been called “Broadway for Black America.” Famous acts ranging from Billie Holiday to Stevie Wonder have performed on its hallowed stage.
“The Apollo became a major cultural phenomenon in Harlem,” Michael Henry Adams, a Harlem historian and author of the book “Harlem: Lost and Found,” said. “Appearing at the Apollo became a rite of passage, an indicator of success.”
“You made it big if you were performing at the Apollo,” Savona Bailey-McClain, a former Community Board 9 member and longtime Harlem resident, said. “No other venue has served in that capacity or has come close.”
Adams noted, however, that the Apollo did not remove all obstacles for black people in Harlem. He recalled the racial bias of white merchants on 125th Street.
“Harlem at that time was segregated,” he said. “The Apollo was dedicated to equality, but just doors away at the Loew’s Victoria Theater, black patrons were confined to the balcony.”
He also mentioned the long work days to which chorus girls at the Apollo were subjected, and their failed efforts to unionize.
“Although the Apollo gave great opportunity to unknown African-American performers, there was some exploitative aspect as well,” Adams said.
Still, the opportunity the theater gave to young unknowns proved central to its legacy. One important feature of the Apollo’s history is its weekly Amateur Night. Before American Idol or X Factor, Amateur Night helped launch the careers of such greats as Ella Fitzgerald and Sammy Davis Jr.
“The Apollo Theater is not only an entertainment venue but has served as a national platform for African-American performers and entertainers throughout the decades,” Bailey-McClain said.
But when the curtain falls and visitors exit the Apollo’s doors, they will return to a Harlem that has changed since the heyday of jazz that the show will attempt to recapture. Along 125th Street and throughout the neighborhood, new storefronts and developments contrast with both the history and the architecture of the Apollo’s landmarked façade.
With its ongoing gentrification and demographic change, many in the area wonder what the Apollo’s role in the community is. According to some, it remains to be seen what the Apollo, a centerpiece of the black historical landscape, can continue to mean in a time when Harlem is no longer dominated by black artists.
“It still offers a performance venue, but that’s not necessarily its primary importance today,” Adams said, noting that the Apollo now serves more to represent the national significance of black performers rather than primarily to showcase their talent.
“One of its greatest roles is as a symbolic landmark that is able to indicate to people the great accomplishments of African-American performers,” he said. He noted that many black performers continue to be oppressed, underscoring the necessity of a place like the Apollo.
The Apollo’s role is not the only thing that has changed for the black community in Harlem.
“Thanks in part to the rezoning of 125th Street, the neighborhood is changing in what I believe to be an adverse way,” Adams said. “There is a great displacement of local businesses and cultural landmarks. Many of the people who make up Harlem’s soul are being forced to leave.”
Jomara Campusano, who owns a religious paraphernalia store on 125th Street just blocks from the Apollo, also said she has seen changes.
“The rising rents are forcing out many older residents, people that have helped to shape the community,” she said. “The whole dynamic of the neighborhood is changing.”
She also noted changes to the demographic makeup of the neighborhood. “There are more rich people moving up here, more white people,” she said. “The shops that are opening are catering to a different crowd.”
The clash between the Harlem of today and the Harlem that the Apollo will celebrate this weekend is evident. In the years since the Apollo opened, the area transitioned from a segregated community into a thriving African-American neighborhood. Now, however, as gentrification escalates, the strength of Harlem’s community is less clear.
Even as questions linger on modern day 125th Street, the Apollo Theater remains after 80 years an important reminder of the flourishing black culture that will continue to be Harlem’s legacy, regardless of the changes taking place just outside the theater’s doors.