The Apollo Theater’s influence on the arts is almost as significant as the stamp it has left in Harlem.
The iconic theater — whose stage has been graced by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to James Brown, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and even President Barack Obama — turns 80 years old on Sunday.
While Harlem has had its ups and downs over the decades, the theater has remained a beacon of hope for anyone dreaming to make it big, according to the Apollo’s managers.
“There’s something about this place. It’s almost like sacred ground because everyone who comes in just feels so pumped,” said Mikki Shepard, the Apollo’s executive producer.
During the Apollo’s anniversary celebration over the next few weeks, its administrators said they will share with visitors the deep history of the institution while advancing the Apollo’s signature style into the 21st Century.
The Apollo opened on Jan. 26, 1934, a year after the original venue at 253 W. 125th Street, Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater, shut down.
Jonelle Procope, the president and CEO of the Apollo Theater Foundation, said the theater’s original owner Sidney Cohen and manager Morris Sussman had a clear vision that attracted a crowd to the location by focusing on recruiting acts from the black artistic community.
The buzz grew quickly as up and coming artists discovered that the theater’s stage was one of a kind, Procope said.
“It’s an intimate and up-close and personal experience,” she said. “The artists have always felt so close to their audience.”
What put the 1,503-seat theater in the spotlight was its weekly amateur night, which was spearheaded by actor and producer Ralph Cooper. The weekly Wednesday night show paved the way for dozens of musical legends, including Brown, Count Bassie and Lauryn Hill. Procope said the Apollo changed the way artists develop because the theater encouraged them to explore new ground.
“Ella Fitzgerald came to amateur night and she wanted to dance. She saw the (dance) performers before her and she got scared,” Proscope said.
Cooper told Fitzgerald that she had to go out on to the stage and asked her what else she could do, Proscope said.
“She said, ‘Well I can sing a little,’ and the rest is history,” Proscope said.
Despite its success and popularity the theater had problems during the ’70s, when Harlem saw an uptick in crime and the doors were shut in 1976.
It reopened briefly in 1978 and 79, featuring performances by big-name acts like Brown.
A major revival didn’t happen until 1981, when political activist and Apollo supporter Percy Sutton bought and reopened the theater, creating a television production studio that showcased concerts, events and talent throughout the world, especially through the late night syndicated “Showtime at the Apollo” show.
“The Apollo is the economic engine of 125th Street. It is a destination. The Apollo is a reason that people get off the tour buses to see the area,” Procope said.
Shepard said the Apollo’s story is really just beginning. Over the last couple years, she and her fellow producers have embraced social media and the new generation of young, diverse artists that call Harlem home.
The Apollo now includes spoken word performances and develops dance performances and musicals such as “James Brown: Get on the Good Foot,” which celebrates the life and times of the theater’s famous alum. All amateur night performances are posted online.
“It brings something different but it’s still the same DNA, finding emerging artists and celebrating them,” Shepard said of the digital push.
At the same time, the producer said the theater is now collaborating with other city arts venues, such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, for joint ventures that combine their styles and artists.
Special events are scheduled for the rest of the year. They will be revealed next week as part of the anniversary celebration.
Although the organizers couldn’t give more details about their programming, they promised that it will give audiences a chance to see the last eight decades in a new light
“I want them to learn about the history that they didn’t know about,” Shepard said.