Apollo Theater celebrates 85 years with a focus on Harlem’s future

The iconic venue eyes younger generations with fresh programming and the opening of a new performing space.

As the Apollo Theater hits its 85th year in Harlem, the iconic venue looks to appeal to a younger generation with a new lineup of celebratory programming and a new performance space.

“What has stayed the same [through the years], is that we are so committed to our mission of being the epicenter of black culture and a space for opportunity,” says Kamilah Forbes, the venue’s executive producer in charge of programming.

Though the building officially opened its doors in 1914 as Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater, the venue marks the 85th year it’s been known as the Apollo on Friday.

New programming initiatives celebrating the milestone have been put in place to bring younger music fans to the space, Forbes says. That includes an interactive family show set for Feb. 2, detailing the ins and outs of the ballet world and featuring talent from the Dance Theater of Harlem.

Creating “a space for a younger generation of audiences as well as elders” is “critical and vital to our future,” Forbes, who’s worked at the venue since 2016, says.

The upcoming winter/spring season schedule, announced this week, features the annual Africa Now! contemporary African music concert series and intimate musical performances from Alice Smith and Kamasi Washington, as well as a new play honoring the late singer Donny Hathaway with dates between May 30 and June 2.

The landmarked venue on 125th Street, which helped serve as a launchpad for artists like Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald and Jimi Hendrix, will also stage a Feb. 2 open house tour with presentations by Ted Fox and James Otis Smith, the creators of the “Showtime at the Apollo” graphic novel. And, it’ll team up with Afropunk to host a Race Music weekend, a three-day event with panels looking to “explore the intersection of music, film, and politics.”

With an expanding events schedule, the iconic Amateur Night — also turning 85 — remains. An updated, contemporary set design will be integrated into the show this year, as well as a new host of yet-to-be-announced show openers. The live showcase opportunity where new talent tries their luck at impressing the Harlem crowd will be held weekly.

Amateur Night, captured in the Steve Harvey-hosted “Showtime at the Apollo,” “is a space in which we create opportunity,” says Forbes. “I think that’s what we’ve been known for and I think artists are looking for that, particularly artists in New York City. I would say, in that respect, it’s our pride and joy.”

Amid a growing lineup of events, the theater also plans to open up a new performance space.

The cultural arts portion of the Victoria Theater, just a few steps away from the Apollo, is set to become the Apollo Performing Arts Center as the latter will be utilizing spaces at the Victoria for new program initiatives, some of which are designed, once again, to reaching a younger audience.

The performing arts center is set to launch in 2020 and will be used as a space for up-and-coming performers of color who are not yet ready to take on the Apollo’s main stage.

Another important goal of the theater is to establish a place to foster a dialogue on racial and social issues, according to a release. The third-annual WOW – Women of the World Festival – is a six-day event running March 12 through March 17, featuring performances, panel chats and more by a diverse group of women in the entertainment industry and beyond. 

“This is a festival in which it is about putting women of color’s voices at the epicenter,” says Forbes. “I think it’s a part of our natural conversation and our local conversation. And what are those social issues? Whether that’s issues around politics, issues around health care, issues around equity, equity in the workplace — these are the kind of topics that will be tackled [in these events].”

For the full list of Apollo’s anniversary events, visit apollotheater.org/calendar.

Nicole Rosenthal