Why is the Harlem Apollo Theater so important?

The Apollo began life as a venue for burlesque shows

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.

Stevie Wonder was a young teenager when he first performed at the legendary venue

Stevie Wonder was a young teenager when he first performed at the legendary venue

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.

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 has worked at the theatre for nearly 50 years and is now the in-house historian

Billy Mitchell has worked at the theatre for nearly 50 years and is now the in-house historian

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.”

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