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Harlem's Apollo Theater, a Cultural Landmark - 2002-07-11

The Apollo Theatre in the Harlem neighborhood is one of New York City's top tourist attractions. But many visitors only see it as they pass by on tour buses. A visit inside the cultural and historic landmark is worth the extra steps. But do not expect to remain a passive spectator.

Drop me off in Harlem.
Any place in Harlem.
There's someone waiting there
who makes it seem like heaven
up in Harlem.
I don't want your Dixie,
you can have your Dixie.
There's no one down in Dixie
who can take me away
from my own Harlem.

A new multimedia production, entitled Harlem Song, celebrates the cultural history of Harlem, and highlights significant historical moments by means of theatre, song, and dance. An award-winning Broadway director and producer conceived the theatrical revue, but if you want to see the show you will have to go to Harlem's Apollo Theatre.

The Apollo Theatre in the heart of Harlem at 125th Street in Manhattan was a hallmark of black entertainment for decades. But in 1975, it went bankrupt and closed down. Subsequent efforts to get the Apollo back on its feet failed, and it was not until the late 1990's that a team of managers, lawyers, and savvy business leaders took over to try and restore the theatre to its former glory.

The non-profit Apollo Foundation wants to bring the best programming it can to the Harlem community. The foundation raising funds and is working on a multi-million-dollar renovation.

President of the foundation, Derek Johnson, said he wants to rebuild the theatre's international image. "The Apollo," he said, "is not just a Harlem-based facility, and it is not just an icon of New York and American culture. The Apollo is really a world-renowned, global icon, and it represents a brand that is equally ubiquitous on the world stage."

When it opened in 1914, the Apollo was used for vaudeville, and burlesque acts played to white audiences only. But a new owner in 1934 began presenting black entertainers to mixed audiences. This led the way to the theatre's recognition as a leading African-American cultural institution.

The Apollo helped pave the road for innovative musical forms from jazz to gospel to blues to hip-hop, and has been a launching pad for legendary artists such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and The Jackson Five.

In recent years, the Dance Theatre of Harlem has appeared at the Apollo. The group's founder, Arthur Mitchell, said the Apollo has a special appeal to performers.

Mr. Mitchell said, "The Apollo itself is one of the greatest theatres that still exists today where performers get a chance to come out and show what they can do. That interaction you have with the audience is something that is very very special."

That interaction is particularly lively on Wednesday evenings when the Apollo hosts "Amateur Night." At this show, the crowd has a say in the performance, but if you are the performer, make sure you are not easily offended.

"Amateur Night at the Apollo" has been a tradition since 1934, lending the stage to budding artists who aspire to be among the next generation of Apollo legends. Some do not get beyond the first verse of a song, and others get a hearty round of applause.

But in both cases, the host assures the audience, and the performers, that it is all in good fun, and there are rules. Children never get booed, for example, and everyone gets a fair try.

The "Amateur Night" host said, "We give every contestant a fair chance until they prove us different. We are all Americans so that means everybody gets a fair chance. So I do not want just 'cause somebody comes out here and they don't have on the type of clothes you like, you start booing."

The Apollo is the best known showcase in Harlem, and certainly one of the most entertaining. As part of the renovations, the theatre is getting a new facade, additional seats, upgraded lighting and new audio and video equipment.

With new dance, music, and theatrical events planned for the coming years, the Apollo is expected to be high on the list of New York City attractions, for visitors and residents alike. And they will even be thanked for their visit.