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,” …read more
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