Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater celebrates its 80th anniversary

For decades it was the place you could see future superstars as working musicians, like Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, the Tempations, the Supremes and James Brown

What Carnegie Hall is to a classical pianist, the Metropolitan Opera is to a mezzo-soprano and Yankee Stadium is to a third baseman, the Apollo Theater was to a jazz musician, tap dancer, rhythm and blues group or an urban comedian.

James Brown struts his stuff at the Apollo Theater.

James Brown struts his stuff at the Apollo Theater.

“It was the pinnacle,” says Smokey Robinson, who sang there countless times with the Miracles and solo. “It was the most important theater in the world. Once you could say you’d played the Apollo, you could get in any door anywhere. You had made it.”

That stature was by no means assured, or even foreseen, when the Apollo opened its doors on Jan. 26, 1934. Then it was just one among dozens of vaudeville and burlesque theaters offering a quick, cheap relief from the Depression.

As it prepares to mark its 80th anniversary this month, it’s still one of the half dozen most famous theaters in the world. While it’s true that hyperbole and exaggeration flow easily in nostalgic talk of bygone cultural institutions, the Apollo needs neither.

The biggest stars did play there. For a buck or two you could arrive before lunch and stay until after midnight, watching five or six shows by the likes of Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, the Nicholas Brothers, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Bill Robinson. Or, a few years later, the Temptations, the Supremes and James Brown.

Nor, with the exception of a few marquee gigs years later, did these artists play the Apollo as superstars, with catering in their dressing rooms. They played as working artists: singers, musicians, comedians and dancers who stayed on the circuit 40-50 weeks a year, playing to a few hundred or a few thousand people at a time.

The Apollo was a week of paying work.

It thrived in part because many of these world-class artists couldn’t get enough work from white clubs, theaters or radio networks.

Still, the Apollo was never a consolation prize. It was a theater full of fans who appreciated some of America’s most original and enduring talent. It was a mecca of mostly black culture on America’s most famous black street.

When Sammy Davis Jr. had the devastating car accident that cost him his left eye in 1954, he booked his first comeback show at the Apollo, where he had tap-danced for years as a child prodigy with the Will Mastin Trio.

“This,” he told the audience, “is where I come home.”

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