Apollo Theater Archive Project
The Apollo Theater Foundation (ATF) has announced a plan to establish an archive that will document the history and ongoing activities of Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. Through this project, a unique collection of photographs, sound recordings, videotapes, institutional documents, printed materials, and memorabilia will be identified, surveyed, collected, inventoried, preserved, and maintained for future generations. A system for the long-term care and continuous collection of archival materials will be established together with a means for sharing the collection with the public. Ultimately, this project will result in a central archive that preserves the Apollo’s history and documents its unique place in American culture. It will be a permanent and accurate record of the chronology of performances and community events that have taken place on the Apollo’s stage since its founding.
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 such musical genres as jazz, swing, bebop, R&B, gospel, blues, and soul. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, 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 on 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 a force in the entertainment industry and a much-loved performance space.
Although the Apollo Theater’s history spans nearly a century, there has to date been no central repository for its archival material. A significant portion of the Apollo’s documented history has been lost, discarded, or forgotten. Under private ownership for over seventy-five years, the building 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 ATF, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation created to safeguard and redevelop the Apollo Theater. Archival materials and historical records were not generally transferred with ownership. While many valuable materials are in the possession of ATF, including a collection of over 1,700 artist portraits, these materials have not received the benefit of museum-standard care.
The Apollo Theater Archive Project will collect, organize, and properly store archival materials currently held and continually produced by ATF as well as retrieve archival materials that are in the possession of other known and unknown parties. The goal of the Archive Project is to concentrate 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 academic research, future performances, and education programs.
The Apollo Theater’s past is examined and documented in a number of currently available resources.
The Frank Schiffman Apollo Theater Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (the Schiffman family owned the Apollo Theater from 1935 to 1977)
Book: Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment*
Edited by Richard Carlin and Kinshasha Holman Conwill (foreword by Smokey Robinson). Published by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Books, Smithsonian Institution, 2010
The lavishly illustrated book was produced as a companion to the exhibition of the same name. It 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, currently at work on a biography of James Brown, investigates the unique success of the Godfather 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, who is the Founding Director of the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program at Columbia University, writes about Latin music at the Apollo.
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 at Apollo Theater Gift Shop
THE 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 was organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in association with the Apollo Theater and in celebration of the Apollo’s 75th anniversary season in 2009-2010.
It examined the rich history and cultural significance of the legendary Harlem Theater, tracing the story from its origins as a segregated burlesque hall to 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, hip 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, bandleaders 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.
The Exhibition was on view at the 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 traveled to:
The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, Michigan
(October 1, 2010 - January 2, 2011)
The Museum of the City of New York, New York, New York (February 8 -May 11, 2011)
The California African American Museum, Los Angeles, California (June 2– November 4, 2011)
The Atlanta History Center, Atlanta, Georgia (October 9, 2011 -March 4, 2012)
The tour of Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment was made possible by a generous grant from Time Warner, Inc. with additional funding from JPMorgan Chase & Co. The exhibition tour was presented in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.
APOLLO ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
As part of the 75th anniversary season in 2009, the Apollo Theater joined with the Columbia University Oral History Research Office to establish a collaboration between the Apollo Theater Foundation (ATF) and the Columbia Center for Oral History (CCOH under the leadership of Director Mary Marshall Clark), a unit of the Columbia University Libraries. The purpose of the partnership was to document and preserve the vibrant history of Harlem’s Apollo Theater and its surrounding neighborhood through a collection of interviews.
The Apollo Theater and the CCOH gathered a group of Columbia scholars to advise the Oral History Project in its earliest phases. Early advisors included Brent Hayes Edwards (English and Comparative Literature), Farah Jasmine Griffin (English and Comparative Literature), Kellie Jones (Art and Archaeology), the late Manning Marable (History), and Robert O’Meally (English and Comparative Literature). In addition, the Project included the participation of the Columbia University Center for New Media Teaching and Learning and the Columbia University Center for Digital Research and Scholarship (the Columbia Center for New Media contributed most of the Project’s videography).
The Oral History Project features interviews with performers, personalities, and staff, who have worked at the Apollo, as well as local cultural and political leaders in an effort to spotlight and safeguard the history of 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 define the Apollo with participation from such notable figures as Smokey Robinson and Hal Jackson.
These interviews were conducted over a three-year period and as of June, 2012, twenty-seven narrators (or interviewees) contributed their time. All together, the Project collected and transcribed 67.7 hours of interviews: 45.5 hours on high-definition audio and 22.2 hours on high-definition video.
In addition to DVDs and transcripts of the interviews, Columbia Center for Oral History created a 20-minute highlight video that features some of the most entertaining and vivid memories captured in the Apollo Oral History Project. The complete interview transcripts as well as the video reel can be accessed as follows:
To gain access to interviews contained in the Apollo Theater Oral History Project, please visit the CCOH website and once there, please:
- Enter the CCOH Interviews Portal and go to the online collection search tool.
- Type “Apollo” in the search field and select “go”.
- A description of the Apollo Theater Oral History Project will appear together with listings for each individual interview included in the project.
Upon your visit you will be asked to register with the office and will be given instructions about viewing the transcripts in the CCOH Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room. Transcript orders may be requested through email or over the phone. DVD recordings of the open interviews are also held at the Center. You may view these in the CCOH office with some restrictions. Permission must be secured in advance from CCOH to use an interview in any way including, but not limited to, publishing, citing, and/or quoting any portion of an interview.
Apollo Oral History ProjectList of Narrators (Interviewees)
Gordon Anderson: House Photographer for the Apollo Theater
Charles Barksdale: Singer for The Dells
Shirley Caesar: Gospel Singer for The Caravans
Candido Camero: Afro-Cuban Jazz Percussionist and Musician
Shirley Greenes: Daughter of Morris Sussman, the first Manager of the Apollo Theater
Jane Harley: Talent Scout, Producer, and Educator
Nona Hendryx: Singer, Songwriter, and Playwright
Maurice Hines: Dancer, Singer, and Choreographer
Hal Jackson: Disc Jockey, Radio Personality, and Founder of Inner City Broadcasting Corporation, which is one of the first African American owned radio stations
Quincy Jones: Record Producer, Musician, Composer, and Conductor
Gladys and Bubba Knight: Singers of Gladys Knight and the Pips
Jerry Kupfer: Radio and Television Producer who expanded Inner City Broadcasting Corporation
John Levy: Violinist, Bassist, and Personal Manager
Gloria Lynne: Vocalist and Composer
Billy Mitchell: Apollo Theater Tour Director and Apollo Ambassador aka “Mr. Apollo”
Thelma Prince: Jazz Dancer
Jonelle Procope: Chief Executive Officer and President of the Apollo Theater Foundation
Charles Rangel: U.S. Representative, 15th Congressional District of New York
Smokey Robinson: Singer, Songwriter, and Music Executive at Motown Records
David Rodriguez: Musician and former Executive Director and General Manager of the Apollo Theater
Bobby Schiffman: Former Manager of the Apollo Theater
Jack Schiffman: Former Manager of the Apollo Theater and author of several books on the history of the Apollo Theater
Charlotte Sutton: Former Producer and Executive at the Apollo Theater
Billy Taylor Jazz Pianist, Composer, and Artistic Director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts
Leslie Uggams Singer and Actress
Dionne Warwick Singer, Actress, and Activist
Mary Louise Williams Dancer, Teacher, and former Usher at the Apollo Theater
The Apollo Theater Oral History Project was supported by generous contributions from the Edward and Leslye Phillips Family Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and the New York Community Trust.