The Apollo Theater at 253 West 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City is a music hall which is a noted venue for African-American performers. It was the home of Showtime at the Apollo, a nationally syndicated television variety show which showcased new talent, from 1987 to 2008, encompassing 1093 episodes.
The theater, which has a capacity of 1506, was built in 1913-14 as Hurtig & Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater, and was designed by George Keister in the neo-Classical style. It became the Apollo in 1934, when it was opened to black patrons – previously it had been a whites-only venue. In 1983 both the interior and exterior of the building were designated as New York City Landmarks, and the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It is estimated that 1.3 million people visit the Apollo every year.
Schiffman had first introduced an amateur night at the Lafayette Theater, where it was known as “Harlem Amateur Hour”, and was hosted by Ralph Cooper. At the Apollo, it was originally called “Audition Night”, but later became “Amateur Night in Harlem”, held every Monday evening and broadcast on the radio over WMCA and eleven affiliate stations.
One unique feature of the Apollo during Amateur Nights was “the executioner”, a man with a broom who would sweep performers off the stage if the highly vocal and opinionated audiences began to call for their removal. Stagehand Norman Miller, known as “Porto Rico” (later played by Bob Collins) might also chase the poor performer offstage with a cap pistol, accompanied by the sound of a siren.
The Apollo grew to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance of the pre-World War II years. Billing itself as a place “where stars are born and legends are made,” the Apollo became famous for launching the careers of artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, who made her singing debut at 17 at the Apollo, on November 21, 1934. Fitzgerald’s performances pulled in a weekly audience at the Apollo and she won the opportunity to compete in one of the earliest of its “Amateur Nights”. She had originally intended to go on stage and dance, but intimidated by the Edwards Sisters, a local dance duo, she opted to sing instead, in the style of Connee Boswell. She sang Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection”, a song recorded by the Boswell Sisters, and won the first prize of $25.00.
Vocalist Thelma Carpenter won the amateur night in 1938, returning several times later as a headliner and also for the 1993 NBC-TV special “Apollo Theater Hall of Fame,” an all-star tribute hosted by Bill Cosby.
Jimi Hendrix won the first place prize in an amateur musician contest at the Apollo in 1964. Amateur Night had its first tie on October 27, 2010, with guitarist Nathan Foley, 16, of Rockville, Maryland, and cellist and singer Ayanna Witter-Johnson, 25, a student at the Manhattan School of Music from London, sharing the $10,000 prize.
Other performers whose careers started at the Apollo include Billie Holiday, Pearl Bailey, James Brown & The Famous Flames, King Curtis, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Wilson Pickett, The Miracles, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Rush Brown, Dionne Warwick, The Jackson 5, Patti LaBelle, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King, Mariah Carey, The Isley Brothers, Lauryn Hill, Sarah Vaughan, Jazmine Sullivan, Ne-Yo, and Machine Gun Kelly.