The Apollo Theater: Behind the Legend

Paul McCartney performed in concert for the first time at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater, Monday, Dec. 13, 2010 in New York. (
Paul McCartney performed in concert for the first time at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater, Monday, Dec. 13, 2010 in New York. (AP Photo/Henny Ray Abrams)

Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. It is bursting with music, theater and dance, and it looks marvelous, thanks to millions in renovations and upgrades -- an appropriate state for this iconic American cultural institution. The Apollo has also been the scene recently of a number of high profile shows, from Paul McCartney to Bruce Springsteen and even Metallica, who performed there both to salute this great showplace and to capture a bit of its magic. To be able to say you "played the Apollo" is one of the last things many of today's superstars want that they don't already have. This is both a triumph and a challenge for the Apollo which became a non-profit organization in 1991. As it launches the public phase of a $20 million fundraising campaign, it is figuring out how to keep its doors open in a fast-gentrifying neighborhood while serving what is still the heart and soul of New York's African-American community. As the civil-rights movement began to alter the nation's consciousness in the 1960s, other areas of opportunity became available to African-American performers. The racist, segregated system the Apollo was forced to work within for so many years began to collapse, at least in part because of the Apollo's tenacity and its inspiring creative innovations. The eager and far-reaching acceptance of black culture in American popular culture was the beginning of something brand new then, if not now. But it was also the beginning of the end for the Apollo Theater's classic days. For it is the ultimate irony that the old Apollo became a casualty of a revolution it helped create. Concert tickets now cost hundreds of dollars. Entertainers -- both white and black -- routinely sell out glittering arenas seating tens of thousands and featuring the latest in technology. Spectacle is as important, or more, than substance in today's rigorously choreographed stage shows. But behind much of today's extravaganzas is the grit, imagination, creativity, innovation and hard-earned soulfulness that the funky little theater on 125th Street gave the world. And the top stars who still come back to the Apollo know it.

Working the Apollo could be terribly difficult -- an Apollo engagement meant doing 31 shows a week in its classic era -- and some called the theater "the workhouse" or "the penitentiary." The atmosphere was sometimes threatening -- dressing room hustles and rip offs were common. The physical condition of the struggling theater was often atrocious. No one was getting rich; In 1962, The Apollo's owner, Bobby Schiffman, paid a grand total of $7,000 for his debut week-long revue featuring many of Motown's soon to be superstars. In the early days, you could purchase a ticket for as little as a dime -- and you could stay all day. Even in the '70s, tickets topped out at six bucks. Yet performers always looked forward to returning to the Apollo, to coming home.

"They didn't look forward to the five shows a day or the filthy dressing rooms," Dionne Warwick told me in my book Showtime at the Apollo. "But they did look forward to the feeling very much. The theater was terrible: drafty, dirty, smelly -- awful; and we loved every minute of it."

"It was a real family feeling," said R&B pioneer Ruth Brown. "Everybody worked for the good of the show and did their best."

The performers at the Apollo generally pulled together and helped one another.

"I didn't know anything about show business when I went in there," said dancer Sandman Sims. "When I came out, I knew all about it. When I first went into the Apollo, I danced with my back to the audience, watching the band. But the rest of the entertainers would tell you what you were doing wrong, or what you should do. This is how the theater was built -- on self-help. We didn't have no critics."

A night out at the Apollo was something special, but the Apollo was also an indispensible part of the community. Mothers brought their babies because it was cheaper than paying a sitter, and they were an accepted part of the scene. The Apollo was an oasis of comfort, security and relaxation. It arose within an atmosphere of grave racial injustice, and the great tradition of the Apollo was founded in the daily struggle of being black in America. Society in the Apollo's classic era forced African-Americans into a strait jacketed existence. So out in the world they stayed cool and held it all in. But at home in the Apollo it could all come out -- the laughter, the sorrow, the joy, the eloquence. There, all the pent-up frustrations of the day were released in a free and uninhibited display that proclaimed their worth and humanity and freedom.

The Apollo's mainly black audience sat at the center of the greatest city in the world, in the middle of the most important black community in the country, right on Harlem's main street, in the top black theater of all time. They were invincible there. Their intention was not to be malicious, but to demand and reward greatness. Wise entertainers realized this, and learned from it.

Thousands of performers crossed the Apollo's stage, and some of them achieved heroic stature. The beauty they gave the world -- their art -- transcended the hatred, ignorance and intolerance that often made their lives so difficult. The Apollo was the cylinder within which the spark of their genius ignited the imagination of the world to power most of the revolutions in popular culture and style from swing to R&B to soul to funk, as well as comedy and dance. They and the audience they faced for so many years made the Apollo what it was -- an institution that had an extraordinary impact upon their lives and, perhaps more than we realize, upon our own as well. It deserves our support.