Only one of the most important places in American music history. The Apollo Theater, located at 253 West 125th street in Manhattan, smack in the middle of Harlem, has been the birthplace of many a career. (Man, I wish those walls could talk.)

The theater was originally opened in 1913 as a home for burlesque shows, chorus lines and striptease acts Given the (then) make-up of the neighborhood, the theater was restricted to white audiences only. As the neighborhood changed, so did the Apollo. By the time 1935 had rolled around, the theater became the stage for ( I dunno what the politically correct term is these days) black only acts.

In 1935, in order to attract new talent, the Apollo Theater began a tradition which lasts to this day – Amateur Night. Younger, less established performers could now showcase their talents on stage along side more established performers. You want variety? The Apollo should be just your place. The range in styles over the years has varied from jazz, bebop, soul, gospel music, rhythm and blues, funk, rap and comedy acts to name a few.

So, who cut their teeth at the Apollo and began calling it “home”? Here’s a very partial list of some of the performers who either got their start or graced the stage of the Apollo over the years.

Count Basie
Fats Waller
Bessie Smith
Billie Holiday
Ella Fitzgerald
Sam Cooke
Sarah Vaughn
Jackie Wilson
Tito Puente
Sammy Davis Jr.
Little Richard
James Brown
The Temptations
Gladys Knight and the Pips
The Jackson Five
Nat King Cole
Stevie Wonder – (then known as Little Stevie Wonder)
Bill Cosby
Richard Pryor

I think you get the idea…

As New York City entered a financial crisis in the 1970’s, the popularity of the Apollo Theater began to decline. It wasn’t until 1983 when it achieved national landmark status (and the funding that goes along with it) that the Apollo experienced a rebirth. It’s coming out party, held in 1985 celebrated the theater’s 50th anniversary. Called “Motown Salutes the Apollo”, the show was broadcast on national television. Many of the Motown most famous acts, past and present graced the stage that evening. A couple of years later, it began airing “Its Showtime at the Apollo.” The show is syndicated but is mostly aired weekly on NBC (usually airing after Saturday Night Live, not an ideal time spot but…) and can still be seen today.

In 1991, the Apollo was purchased by the State of New York (who probably recognized a good thing) and a not for profit organization by the name of The Apollo Theater Foundation Inc. was established. Its goal was simple; ensure the theaters continued success while recognizing its historical importance. With that in mind, the concept of Amateur Nights was reborn.

In 2001, in an effort to expand the variety of acts and boost attendance, the concept of Latin Night was born. It features a mixture of Latino pop music, meringue and other tropical themes. The same year, the Dance Theatre of Harlem kicked off its inaugural season on the stage at the Apollo and comedian Whoopi Goldberg debuted her one woman show.

In 2002, the Apollo once again broke new ground. A benefit performance of The Vagina Monologues was staged as well as a benefit concert for the Democratic National Committee.

The Apollo Theater ranks third in the number of visits of tourists in New York City, attracting over 1.3 million visitors a year. When all is said and done, it can be probably argued that no stage has had more influence or impact on the American entertainment scene than that of the Apollo Theater.

Interesting sidenote: As user Lennon points out, Buddy Holly and the Crickets were the first white performers to appear on stage at the Apollo after it went to an all black format. This was only because the promoter at the time thought they were black because of their sound.

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