Saturday, May 9, 2015

Broadway Alternatives: The Apollo Theater

There are a few music venues that have come to ecapsulate what American music is and what it sounds like. The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville has defined country music for generations. The Fillmore in San Francisco made 60s flower power and rock n' roll an American standard. And up on 125th Street in Harlem stands the Apollo Theater. It's hard to believe that a theater that opened in 1914 as whites only burlesque in a largely Jewish neighborhood would become the soul of black music in America. But now more than a century after it opened it remains one of the best concert venues in New York City and a living history lesson of soul, R&B, funk, hip-hop, and everything in between.

   The Apollo opened in 1914 under the name Hurtig & Seamon's New Burlesque Theater. At that time, the Great Migration that would later bring waves of African-Americans from the south to northern cities was only just beginning and Harlem was still a mostly white neighborhood. Waves of new black arrivals from the south, the Caribbean, and other NYC neighborhoods would converge in Harlem and most of the white population would be gone by the 1940s. The changing population meant that Hurtig & Seamon's white only policy was doomed for failure, and the theater was sold in 1928. After multiple owners failed to revive the theater, it was taken over by Sydney Cohen in 1933 who reversed the ban on black audiences and opened the theater to everyone, including backstage where, according to 1930s manager Frank Schiffman the Apollo employed more black workers than any theater in the country at the time. The theater became a hit showing everything from jazz, vaudeville, comedy, and dance featuring the best black performers in the country.

   The theater has evolved and changed its lineups constantly as music styles have changed. Jazz performers and dancers like Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Bessie Smith, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington dominated the thirties and forties The fifties would mix singers like Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis with jazz greats like Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. As gospel, soul, and R&B came to define black music the Apollo would host the Staples Sisters, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and more. The fun lasted until 1976 when the theater finally closed in the midst of the drugs and depression of New York in the 70s. But it wouldn't remain closed long. In a mere four decades the Apollo had become a defining spirit of American music and it was saved by an African-American media company who bought it and helped the theater achieve national landmark status. The Apollo is currently owned by the State of New York and operated by the non-profit Apollo Theater Foundation, who continues to book shows regularly. But the shows are sporadic, so if you want to see a show at the Apollo there's no guarantee that any major shows will be booked. But there's one show guaranteed to go on every Wednesday night: Amateur Night.
   Amateur Night at the Apollo started in 1934 when Cohen hired Ralph Cooper, who produced an amateur performance on the radio and at the nearby Lafayette Theater, to produce the show at the Apollo. They got off to a good start when a teenage Ella Fitzgerald won one of the first performances in 1934. She was originally slated to dance but was intimidated by the dance trio ahead of her on the bill, so she made a spur of the moment career move to singing. Amateur night has helped launch the careers of an astonishing number of amazing performers: Sarah Vaughan, Dionne Warwick, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Gladys Knight, the Jackson 5, Lauryn Hill, and so many more it will make your head spin. Some greats like Dave Chapelle, Ne-Yo, and Luther Vandross even went on to fame despite booings or poor showings at Amateur Night.
   And about the booing: The experience of going to Amateur Night is a very loose and interactive one. The house band keeps the audience literally dancing. The hosts crack jokes and get the audience involved by inviting audience members onstage to test their courage and improv a performance. The audience is invited to cheer their hearts out for their favorite performers and to boo lustily anyone they don't like. Anyone receiving more boos than cheers is subject to the ritual of being shooed off the stage by the resident "executioner" C.P. Lacey. It's a theater experience like no other, where the audience is part of the show and anything that isn't a crowd-pleaser is ushered off. For those bored by Broadway song and dance, spend a Wednesday night at the Apollo.

1 comment:

  1. Theater events are really amazing and I am grateful that you shared about it here. Well, I was wondering if you can help me with the detailing and information on similar event that are being organized at NYC venues.