Sun shines again on Apollo

Famed Harlem theater undergoing renovation, rebirth

Sunday, July 7, 2002

— Sammy Davis Jr. strolled out, stared at the audience and lost his voice. Smokey Robinson taught the Temptations the words to his latest song, "My Girl," moments before they took the stage. And a family named Jackson appeared on Amateur Night and became superstars.

For decades, the Apollo Theater was a citadel for black entertainers and a proving ground for promising stars, an epicenter of black American culture.

And then, after years of neglect, it went dark.

Now, the 90-year-old theater is about to undergo a bold renovation and expansion to turn it into a major cultural and performing arts center.

In the coming years, theater managers hope to spend $250 million to transform the former burlesque hall into a high-tech multiplex, complete with clothing store, restaurant and recording studio.

"We have a chance to be much more than a music hall," says Derek Johnson, president of the Apollo Theater Foundation. "We want to show the world just how hard we are working to reclaim the stature that the Apollo traditionally has had."

Repairs under way

The first phase of the initial $50 million in renovations is under way, starting with external repairs. The Apollo's famous marquee is being restored with as much of its original material as possible. Marble and granite work from the 1920s discovered under the exterior paint will be restored as well as the theater's terra-cotta detail.

The theater will be shuttered from January to August 2003 for extensive internal improvements.

The internal renovation will include installation of new digital lighting, a new sound system to replace the antiquated one currently in use, new carpeting and seats, repairs to the roof, expansion of the restrooms, upgrades to heating and air conditioning, renovation of the dressing rooms and the addition of wheelchair ramps and lifts for the disabled.

The rowdy Amateur Nights, a hallmark of the Apollo, will go on a 35-city tour, including stops in Tokyo and London, during the restoration.

Marketing equity

The theater was on the brink of financial ruin when Johnson, a former AOL Time Warner executive, replaced Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., last year as chairman of the Apollo foundation.

The Apollo was not marketed effectively in the past, says Johnson, who plans to exploit the theater's rich history and name to rebuild its image as a major entertainment venue and cultural attraction.

"There is something in marketing called equity, and the equity hasn't been used," says Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and a foundation board member. "It's the Apollo name, more than the name of the performers, that attracts the audience."

The Apollo has been a New York legend ever since the building first went up in 1914. It soon became Hurtig and Seamon's New (Burlesque) Theater, which featured striptease and vaudeville acts that played to white audiences; blacks were not allowed in.

But in 1928, new owners changed the name to Apollo and later began showcasing black entertainers to mixed audiences as Harlem's racial makeup began to change. In 1932, Duke Ellington rocked the rafters when his band performed "It Don't Mean a Thing If You Ain't Got That Swing." Amateur Night began in 1934, launching the careers of such legends as Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.

For the next few decades, every major entertainer appeared on the Apollo's stage. By the 1970s, with big acts commanding big salaries, the small-capacity theater � with only 1,477 seats � went bankrupt and closed its doors in 1975.