There may be no building more associated with great African-American entertainers than the Apollo Theater. When it opened in 1934, the former vaudeville stage was one of the few venues to allow African Americans to attend and perform. That same year Ella Fitzgerald won one of the first Amateur Night contests, held to this day nearly every Wednesday night. Since then it has been the place to catch rising talent along the lines of the Jackson 5, James Brown, D’Angelo and Lauryn Hill, who at 13 was booed by the capricious crowd.
The theater—whose terra-cotta facade, instantly recognizable marquee and neon blade sign front a surprisingly intimate interior, the whole of it designated a landmark in 1983—is a key part of the legacy and fabric of Harlem, having reshaped the role of African-American music in NYC and the United States. And, of course, though the Apollo is most famous as a stage for black performers, many others have thrived there as well, including Buddy Holly and the Rolling Stones. Billy Mitchell, the theater's tour director and resident historian, says, “The truth is, every race, culture and ethnic group has contributed to the Apollo Theater's history.”
Want to learn more? Take an hour-long tour, available all week by reservation only. Or just keep reading below.
How to get there
The A, B, C, D, 2 and 3 trains all stop at 125th Street, within a block or two of the theater. By bus, take the M2, M7, M10, M100, M101 or M102 to 125th Street (or the closest stop on the street, for the crosstown buses).
253 W. 125th St. (bet. Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvds.), Manhattan
From 1914 to 1928 the theater (then named Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater) was “whites only”—an ironic beginning considering its eventual place in African-American entertainment history.
• The Apollo Theater reopened with a new name—and open-admission policy—on January 26 1934, and soon after held its first Amateur Night.
• Later that year, a 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald won Amateur Night (and a $25 prize), after she made a last-minute decision to switch from dancing to singing.
• One more Amateur Night note: there is a stump, dubbed the Tree of Hope, that performers rub for good luck before they go on; it’s placed on the edge of the stage for Amateur Night (and a replica exists in the lobby). The stump comes from a tree that stood outside the Lafayette Theatre a few blocks away and was cut down when the City widened Seventh Avenue in 1934.
• James Brown, Moms Mabley and B. B. King are among the musicians who have recorded live albums at the Apollo. More recently, Amy Schumer taped a special there.
• Many artists made themselves at home in the Apollo. According to Billy Mitchell, Ray Charles used to gamble in the back alley and Flip Wilson would sleep under the stage, while Solomon Burke would cook (and sell) food between sets.
• Jay Z performed a “diss” track about Tupac Shakur at the theater, though no recording of the song has ever surfaced.
• Stars who got their start at the Apollo include Billie Holiday, Gladys Knight, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Jackie Wilson, Dave Chappelle, Sammy Davis Jr. and Luther Vandross.
Bill's Place: It feels like you're entering a 1920s speakeasy for Bill's weekend jazz performances.
The Cecil: Richard Parsons and Alexander Smalls' trendy spot serves upscale food it refers to as Afro-Asian-American cuisine.
The National Jazz Museum in Harlem: Harlem is known for jazz; this is the best area spot to learn about the genre.
Red Rooster Harlem: Marcus Samuelsson's restaurant does modern takes on comfort food like fried chicken and spiced meatballs.
Studio Museum in Harlem: This institution showcases work focused on African-American culture and typically by black artists.