Originally settled by Dutch immigrants in 1637, Harlem was formally organized in1658, under leadership of Peter Stuyvesanas as Nieuw Haarlem, after the Dutch city of Haarlem. The area was originally inhabited by the Manhattans, a native American tribe. In 1664, the English took control of the New Netherland colony and anglicized the name of the town to Harlem. In the early years of the 1600’s, Harlem remained largely farmland estates. Harlem generally extends from the East River west to the Hudson River, between 96th Street to 155th Street.
Harlem’s black population grew as large numbers of black residents began to migrate to Northern cities from the South, between 1890 and 1920, where they hoped to find better opportunities and less discrimination.
Harlem has been a major African-American residential, cultural, and business center since the 1920s, as well as home to a variety of other ethnic groups.
Harlem became known as the spiritual home of the Negro protest movement. The NAACP had become active in Harlem in 1910 and Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey founded the United Negro Improvement Association in 1916, which urged blacks to unite and form their own nation.
Although the influence of the southern nonviolent protest movement was muted in Harlem, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the black leader most respected there. At least two dozen other groups of black nationalists also operated in New York. The most important of these was the Nation of Islam, whose Temple Number Seven was run by Malcolm X from 1952 to1963.
Religion has always played an important role in harlem. The Abyssinian Baptist Church has been a particularly influential religious organization in Harlem because of its large congregation and its recent wealth due to extensive real estate holdings. There are also mosques in Harlem, and Judaism, too, maintains a presence in Harlem.
New York's economic revival in the late 20th century, following the Great Depression, led to economic growth in Harlem as well.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem became the center of a flowering of black culture that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. The musical revue, “Shuffle Along,” which opened on Broadway in 1921 and delighted audiences with its high-energy singing and dancing may have provided the spark that ignited the Harlem Renaissance. During this time, there was an abundance of creative activity in Harlem with a flourishing of artists, novelists, poets, musicians, and actors.
Discrimination still prevailed, durring this time and some jazz venues, for example, the famous Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington played, and Connie's Inn, were restricted to whites only. Other establishments were integrated, including the Renaissance Ballroom and the Savoy Ballroom on Lenox Avenue, which was a renowned venue for swing dancing. The Savoy was immortalized in a popular song of the era, "Stompin' At The Savoy".
Nightlife thrived in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. Between Lenox and Seventh avenues in central Harlem, over 125 entertainment establishments operated, including speakeasies, cellars, lounges, cafes, taverns, supper clubs, rib joints, theaters, dance halls, and bars and grills.
Although the period of Harlem's history since the 1920s has been highly romanticized, with job losses in the time of the Great Depression and the deindustrialization of New York City after World War II, rates of crime and poverty increased significantly and the neighborhood began to deteriorate into a slum. Some of the music and literature created during the Harlem Renaissance was undoubtly inspired as a response to the poverty, crime, and other social ills prevalent during that time.
Black Harlemites began to play important roles in the elected political infrastructure of New York starting in 1941 with the election of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to the City Council. He was then elected to Congress in 1944. He used this position to direct federal funds to various development projects in Harlem.
By 1995, Harlem was experiencing social and economic gentrification with the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper or middle income families and individuals, which resulted in increased property values that often displaced low-income families and small businesses.
This gentrfication has been driven by changing federal and city policies, including fierce crime-fighting and a concerted effort to develop the retail corridor on Harlem’s main street,125th Street - which was named by the American Planning Association as one of the 10 great streets across America. A prominent resident of 125th Street is former U.S. president, President Bill Clinton, who has his office there.
As the economy has grown in Harlem, real estate values have also climbed. Some of Harlem’s elegant townhouses, which date back to the early prosperous Dutch era are now selling in million dollar ranges.
The percentage of residents who are black peaked in 1950 and blacks ceased to be a majority of the population by 1998, as middle-class blacks moved to boroughs, such as the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, and new white and Hispanic residents began to move into Harlem. However, Harlem has remained the cultural and political capital of black New York and black America.
Nearly every top black entertainer has performed at the Apollo Theater! One of the most famous music halls in the United States, it is the nation's most popular venue for emerging as well as established African-American and Latino performers.
One of the most popular traditions on the Apollo’s entertainment agenda has been its Amateur Night, which is still held every Wednesday night throughout the year. Started in 1934 at the Apollo Theatre by Ralph Cooper, an actor and producer, Amateur Hour quickly became the leading showcase for young talented performers. Many of them have gone on the become famous in the entertainment world, such as Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, James Brown and Lauryn Hill, Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, and the Count Basie Orchestra.
The Apollo theater’s neo-classical architecture was designed by architect, George Keister. Construction was completed in 1914. The Apollo name came from the Apollo Hall, which was founded in Harlem as a dance hall and ballroom in the mid-19th century by former Civil War General Edward Ferrero.
Sidney S. Cohen, president of the Motion Picture Theater Owners of America, purchased the Apollo Theater in 1932. It was leased to Jules Hurtig and Harry Seamon, and became known as Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater.
In 1933, Fiorello La Guardia, who later became New York City’s Mayor, began a campaign against burlesque and Hurtig and Seamon’s was one of many theaters that were forced to close down.
Cohen and his partner, Morris Sussman reopened the building as the 125th Street Apollo Theatre in 1934 with Sussman as its manager. They changed the format of the shows from burlesque to variety revues and directed their marketing to attract interest from the growing African-American community in Harlem. In the early days, African-Americans had not been allowed in the theater as patrons or as performers.
Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher took over the Apollo in 1935. Schiffman and Brecher opened with a black review" entitled "Jazz a la Carte," featuring Ralph Cooper, Benny Carter and his orchestra, and "16 Gorgeous Hot Steppers."
Other entertainers who performed at the Apollo during the 1930’s were comedians, Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, Jackie “Moms” Mabley and Dusty Fletcher. Popular tap Dancers included the Nicholas Brothers, the Berry Brothers, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Buck and Bubbles.
The Forties brought Lionel Hampton’s 16-piece band and dance attractions - Teddy Hale, Babe Laurence and Bunny Briggs. Dinah Washington and Sammy Davis, Jr. made their first Apollo appearances, during the 1940s, along with Sarah Vaughn and Ruth Brown.
Performing at the Apollo during the fifties were the Johnny Otis Rhythm and Blues Caravan and Josephine Baker.
Latin “Mambo Shows” became a major Apollo attraction with stars such as Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria and the Mambo Aces.
Comedy acts like “Harlem’s Son of Fun,” Nipsey Russell, Timmie Rogers, and James “Stump” Cross and Harold “Stumpy” Cromer were major draws.
“The Detective Story,” with Sidney Poitier was the first dramatic play to be performed on the stage. Then, heavyweight boxing champion, Joe Louis entertained the Apollo audience with his comedy routine.
In 1955, Thurman Ruth’s Gospel Caravan debuted at the Apollo featuring talent, such as The Dixie Hummingbirds, Shirley Caesar, Alex Bradford, Swan Silvertones, the Staple Singers, Clara Ward, and the Soul Stirrers.
In 1955, disc jockey Tommy “Dr. Jive” Smalls introduced the idea of the Rhythm and Blues Revue to Apollo Theater. The shows featured as many as a dozen vocal acts on one bill.
Showtime at the Apollo” was first broadcast in 1955, taped before a live studio audience. Performers included Sarah Vaughn, “Big” Joe Turner, Herb Jeffries, the Count Basie Orchestra, comedian Nipsey Russell, and dancer, Bill Bailey. Willie Bryant was the host.
Jazz greats, such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk also began to make appearances at the Apollo Theater, during that time.
Night contestants, during the fifties, included the Esquires, Dionne
Warwick, Joe Tex, and James Brown.
A Scepter Records show package included the Shirelles, Chuck Jackson, Tommy Hunt, Maxine Brown and the Isley Brothers.
Amateur Night winners, during the sixties, included Gladys Night, King Curtis, Ronnie Spector, Billy Stewart, Jimi Hendrix, and Charlie and Inez Foxx.
Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Joe Tex, and Aretha Franklin, brought the sound of soul to the Apollo.
James Brown recorded live shows at the Apollo in 1962, and The “Motortown” Revue debuted with the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Commodores, and “Little” Stevie Wonder.
“Blues Nights” at the Apollo featured B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, T-Bone Walker, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Odetta. Bill Cosby made his first appearance at the Apollo, during the sixties.
Aretha Franklin’s shows, during the seventies, were major events. Stars of the Philadelphia International record label including: the Delfonics, the O’Jay’s, the Stylistics, the Spinners, the Three Degrees, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and B.B. King appeared at the Apollo, during the seventies.
by the mid 1970s, the Apollo was presenting only 22 weeks of shows per
year because recordings had begun to eclipse live performances as a
source of income for artists.
In 1981, the Apollo theater was purchased by Inner City Broadcasting, a firm owned by Percy Sutton, a prominent lawyer and technology executive, and a group of private investors. Under his ownership, the Theater’s facilities were expanded with a recording and television studio. The Apollo received state and city landmark status as Harlem’s oldest functioning theater in 1983.
On May 5th, 1985, a renovation of the Apollo was celebrated with a 50th Anniversary grand reopening and a television special, “Motown Salutes the Apollo.” “Amateur Night” was re-launched that same year and “Showtime at the Apollo” was revived and launched as a television show.
In 1991, the Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc., was established as a private, not-for-profit organization, to manage, fund and oversee programming for the theater. The Foundation launched its first performance series with a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That was followed by performances that included the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, the Boys Choir of Harlem, and the Betty Carter - Jazz Ahead ’95. Tony Bennett also played a sold-out engagement that honored Billie Holiday.
In 2002, George C. Wolfe’s musical Harlem Song opened at the Apollo. In 2005, the theater hosted its inaugural Spring Benefit Gala with a special tribute Ossie Davis.
In December, 2005, a $65 million theater refurbishment project was initiated. The first phase included a new facade and a new marquee, a new stage, and the installation of over 1,500 new house seats.
Today, the Apollo Theater, which functions under the guidance of a Board of Directors, continues to present concerts, performing arts, and education and community outreach programs.
An Apollo Theater Archive Project has also been launched to organize and preserve historically important costumes, documents, photographs, recordings, memorabilia and other items related the the theater’s history, and to maintain documentation of the theater’s current activities, such as performances and programs.
Edited by Mel Fenson from information derived from the Apollo Theater website, Wikipedia, The New York Times and other web sources. It should be noted that our research has discovered some conflicting dates and other information that could not be verified.
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