5 Ways the Apollo Theater Continues to Inspire You Need to Know

5 Ways the Apollo Theater Continues to Inspire You Need to Know

Since 1934, the Apollo Theater in Harlem has served as a major performing arts venue for established and emerging African-American talent. Here are just five of the ways the Apollo Theater continues to foster talent and inspire the broader community:

  1. A festive annual gala to support the arts.

Apollo theater
Image by Erik Drost | Flickr

On June 12, 2017, Charles and Karen Phillips chaired the Spring Gala for the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, raising more than $2 million over the course of the event. The evening showcased performances by marquee names such as Sheila E., Charlie Wilson, and CeeLo Green, who performed a powerful duet of his Gnarls Barkley song “Crazy” with The Voice contestant Wé McDonald. Cedric the Entertainer hosted the program.

The gala is among New York’s most-anticipated annual events, with dinner and dancing following the show. Along with the other luminaries in its line-up this year, the Apollo was especially gratified to book CeeLo Green, with whom it has worked to develop a new musical based on his work.

The funds raised at the gala will help benefit the Apollo’s array of arts, theater, education, and community-building projects.

  1. Inspiring notable philanthropic supporters.

Mr. Phillips, who currently heads enterprise software manufacturer Infor as its CEO, is a noted philanthropist who has made major contributions of time and funding to nonprofit organizations in his New York City community and beyond. Through the Phillips Charitable Foundation, Charles and Karen Phillips have demonstrated a commitment to working, in particular, on issues surrounding education for disadvantaged students, assistance to struggling single parents, and the needs of military veterans.

At the gala, the Apollo recognized some of its other major supporters, including Verizon. The wireless company was presented with the theater’s Corporate Award in honor of its commitment to the values of inclusion and innovation. The company sponsors the Verizon Innovative Learning program, through which it has directed $25 billion to open up new digital opportunities for residents of under-resourced communities.

  1. An array of community-focused programming.

In addition to supporting general programming efforts, the funds raised every year at the gala assist in making paid summer internships possible for teens. They also bring the theater’s teaching artists into public school classrooms to expose underserved students to high-quality performance seminars. And they allow emerging professionals in the arts to take part in career-building activities. Every year, hundreds of thousands of children, teens, and adults benefit from these programs.

  1. An indelible symbol of the African-American experience.

Among the themes echoed by multiple performers from the Spring Gala stage was the central place of the Apollo in the cultural history of Harlem, of the city itself, and of the African-American community. Because of this iconic status, the Apollo deserves to be not only celebrated, but protected for future patrons to enjoy and to learn from its legacy.

For generations, the Apollo has served as the venue for top musicians, singers, and performers from the African-American community. As Charlie Wilson observed at the gala, today, its fans and supporters are willing to contribute significant amounts of their time and talents to help keep it alive.

Long before there was The Voice or American Idol, there was Amateur Night at the Apollo, which began offering opportunities to up-and-coming talent in 1934. Noted for its tough and vocal audiences, Amateur Night has become the proving ground for a string of now-legendary performers who first made their names there. Ella Fitzgerald, then only 15 years old, was among the contest’s first winners.

This year’s Spring Gala also brought newer talent, like Trombone Shorty, to the concert stage, along with the established performers. Wé McDonald herself got her start as an Apollo Amateur Night winner, taking home the theater’s accolades on four separate occasions.

  1. A vibrant part of New York’s rich history.

Housed in an elegant building designed in the neo-Classical style by George Keister, the Apollo Theater debuted in the days before the United States entered the First World War. Founded in 1914, it was originally known as Hurtig and Seamon’s New (Burlesque) Theater, and catered only to white patrons and performers. Because of the segregation and prejudice common at the time, African-American performers and audiences found few white-owned venues that welcomed them, even in New York.

But as the Great Migration of African-Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South headed north, New York in general, and Harlem in particular, grew into a thriving and diverse community. By the 1920s, Harlem had become a major African-American residential and commercial center.

In the 1930s, when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia began a determined effort to close the city’s burlesque houses, and the Apollo was among the many to close its doors. But in 1934 it reopened under new ownership, this time welcoming African-American patrons from its own neighborhood and beyond. That same year, Amateur Night was born, held weekly on Wednesday evenings.

The Apollo has served as a nexus for the development of the major American musical art forms: jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, swing, and others. Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan sang there in their heyday, as did Billie Holiday, to whom the theater dedicated a special program earlier in 2017, at the Harlem EatUp Festival. Lena Horne, Luther Vandross, Sam Cooke, James Brown, and D’Angelo are only a few of the other major stars who have performed there.

After operating for a time in the 1970s as a movie theater, the Apollo was purchased by an investment group in 1981, earned landmark status in 1983, and reopened two years later following renovations.

Under non-profit status today, the theater remains a cherished venue for the performing arts, concerts, and educational activities.