Apollo Theater Archive Project
The Apollo Foundation (ATF) plans to establish an archive that will document the rich history and ongoing activities of the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem. Through this project, a unique collection of photographs, sound recordings, video tapes, institutional documents, printed materials and memorabilia will be identified, surveyed, collected, inventoried, preserved and maintained for generations to come. A system for the long-term care and continuous collection of archival materials will also be established along with a means for sharing the collection with the public. Ultimately, this project will result in a centralized archive that reconstructs the Apollo’s history and provides a permanent resource with documentary evidence of the Apollo’s significant contributions to American his story and culture, as well, as the diverse artists, performance and unique events currently presented year-round on the Apollo’s stage.
The Apollo Theater is a national icon with a legacy that resonates across generations, ethnic groups and continents. Since opening its doors in 1914 and introducing the first Amateur Night contests in 1934, the Apollo Theater has played a major role in the emergence of innovative musical genres including jazz, swing, bebop, R&B, gospel blues and soul. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Bill Cosby, Gladys Knight, Luther Vandross, D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill and countless others began their road to stardom in the Apollo stage. Enduring as a proud symbol of American artistic achievement, the Apollo is the only early 20th century theater in Harlem still operating as a performance venue. Based on its cultural significance and architecture, the theater received landmark designation in 1983 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. To this day, the Apollo Theater remains an important fixture in both the entertainment industry and the African-American community.
While the Apollo Theater has achieved recognition around the world, a central repository for archival material has not existed over the years. Subsequently, a significant portion of the Apollo Theater’s documented history has been lost, discarded, disbursed to unknown parties or otherwise forgotten. Under private ownership for over seventy-five years, the Apollo Theater was acquired and managed by various parties from 1914 to the early 1990s. In 1991, ownership was transferred to The State of New York and then leased in 1992 for 86 years to the Apollo Theater Foundation, a non-for-profit 50(c)(3) corporation created to safeguard and redevelop the Apollo Theater. Archival materials and historical records were not generally transferred along with ownership from party to party, and while some materials were retained by the ATF, including a collection of over 1,700 artists portraits, they have not received museum-standard care due to lack of organizational resources and expertise.
There are several existing external resources to help document the Apollo Theater’s past including the “Frank Schiffman Apollo Theater Collection” at the Smithsonian Institution (the Schiffman family owned the Apollo Theater from 1935 to 1977) and the books "Showtime at the Apollo Theater" by Ted Fox, "Uptown: The Story of Harlem’s Apollo Theater" by Jack Schiffman, "Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment" published by the National Museum of African American History and Culture through Smithsonian Books, and "Amateur Night at the Apollo" by Ralph Cooper and Steve Dougherty. While they remain welcome chronicles of the Apollo Theater’s history, these collections are by no means definitive and exist outside the aegis of the Apollo Theater Foundation.
The Apollo Theater Archive Project is a concerted effort to investigate, organize and properly store archival materials currently held and continually produced by ATF, as well as to collect archival materials that are in the possession of other known and unknown parties. This project is needed to centralize a wealth of information and materials relating to the Apollo Theater’s history; to document the Apollo Theater’s current activities including construction and restoration efforts, performances and programs; and to serve as an important resource for marketing, audience development, educational programs and new business ventures. Additionally, the Apollo Theater Archive Project will establish a system for the long-term care of archival materials and provide a means of sharing the unique collection with the public.
The Archive Project is essential to the ongoing growth and long-term stability of this historic institution. The Archive will grow to become a primary resource for all programmatic initiatives and other efforts at the Theater. Additionally, the Archive presents an unparalleled resource for the entire community to explore aspects of American history and culture in which the Apollo has played a unique role. Moreover, it provides a historical underpinning and institutional identity enabling the Apollo to evolve, and remain a vital, dynamic performing arts organization.
Current components of the Archive Project include:
Smithsonian's Apollo Theater Exhibition
Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment
The first exhibition to explore the Apollo Theater’s seminal impact on American popular culture has been organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment examines the rich history and cultural significance of the legendary Harlem theater, tracing the story from its origins as a segregated burlesque hall to its starring role at the epicenter of African American entertainment and American popular culture.
Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment traces the evolution of the Apollo from its origins as a segregated burlesque hall to its starring role at the epicenter of African-American entertainment and American popular culture. Nearly all forms of entertainment - comedy, swing, jazz, rock 'n' roll, soul, hop hop and more - were welcomed on the Apollo stage. Serving as a place where African-American performers could start and advance their careers, the Apollo helped to launch some of the best-known names in entertainment - dancers Charles "Cholly" Atkins, Sammy Davis, Jr, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson; band leaders Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington; comedians Redd Foxx and Jackie "Moms" Mabley; and musicians ranging from Louis Armstrong, James Brown and Lionel Hampton to Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and The Jackson Five.
A richly-illustrated companion book, with a foreword by Motown singer, songwriter and Producer Smokey Robinson, features historic photographs and essays by more than 20 historians, musicologists and critics.
Organized by NMAAHC in association with the Apollo and in celebration of the Apollo's 75th Anniversary, Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing was on view in the new museum's gallery in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History from April 23, 2010 through August 29, 2010. Following its premiere in Washington D.C., the exhibition was presented at Detroit's Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History from October 1, 2010 - January 2, 2011. The exhibition comes to the Museum of the City of New York from February 8 through May 11, 2011 and will then tour to other cities (to be announced). The tour is being presented in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.
The tour of the Apollo Theater Exhibit is made possible by a generous grant from Time Warner, Inc, with additional funding from JPMorgan Chase & Co.
Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing *
Edited by Richard Carlin and Kinshasha Holman Conwill, forward by Smokey Robinson.
A richly illustrated book serves as a companion to the exhibition of the same name and explores the social and historical significance of the Apollo and the cultural impact of the artists who performed there. Zita Allen, a former critic for Dance Magazine, focuses on the legacy of the Apollo chorus line dancers. Greg Tate, at work on a biography of James Brown, investigates the unique success of the God Father of Soul. Mel Watkins, author of On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy, writes about pioneering comedians at the Apollo. Ethnomusicologist Christopher Washburne, founding director of the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program at Columbia University, writes about Latin music at the Apollo.
Published by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, through Smithsonian Books, Smithsonian Institution, 2010.
Showtime at the Apollo: The Story of Harlem’s World Famous Theater *
by Ted Fox
A full-scale history of the world famous Apollo Theater, a classic text, updated in 2003.
Mill Road Enterprises (Revised edition), 2003.
Amateur Night at the Apollo
by Ralph Cooper and Steve Dougherty
by Jack Schiffman
Prometheus Books, 1984.
Uptown: The Story of Harlem's Apollo Theatre
by Jack Schiffman - Foreword by Flip Wilson
Cowles Book Co., 1971.
* Available @ Apollo Theater Gift Shop
Apollo Oral History Project
The Apollo Theater joined with Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office to document and preserve the vibrant history of Harlem’s Apollo Theater and its surrounding neighborhood. The Apollo Theater Oral History Project features interviews with performers, personalities and staff, as well as local cultural and political leaders in an effort to spotlight and safeguard one of New York’s most important cultural institutions.
The project includes audio and video interviews with artists and community leaders across generations who have helped distinguish the renowned theater, with participation from such notable figures as Smokey Robinson and Hal Jackson, among many others.