The Apollo Theater: 85 And Still Growing

Sanden Wolff Productions
Updated Apollo Marquee.
Apollo marquee. Independent/Apollo Theater Archives

Although it’s only a tree trunk, its roots run deep.

The last, famous remnant of the Tree of Hope — a stately elm which grew in front of another Harlem theater a few blocks north and was touched for luck by the performers there — stands in the wings of the Apollo, its top smoothed and burnished by a million optimistic fingers.

It has been touched by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, by Ethel Waters and Eubie Blake, and that was while it was still standing in front of the Lafayette Theater. When Ralph Cooper moved his Amateur Night in 1935 from the Lafayette to the new, more socially-progressive Apollo Theater (which had reopened under its new name only a year before), the tree was being removed, chopped down to make way for progress. He brought a piece of it with him to be ritualistically rubbed before performances by “amateurs” like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, and Jimi Hendrix, all winners of Amateur Night.

Although the Tree of Hope remains indomitably dormant, its location is anything but. At 85 years young, the Apollo Theater continues to grow; its performances, its educational programs, and now, for the first time in over eight decades, its physical footprint.

The Apollo is undertaking the initial phase of transforming into the Apollo Performing Arts Center, through two new theaters within the Victoria Theater Redevelopment Project, right next door at 233 West 125th Street. Scheduled to open in fall 2020, the two new theaters at the Victoria space will allow the nonprofit Apollo Theater, which will operate the spaces, to increase the number of programming, educational, and community programs it offers. They will also house the Classical Theatre of Harlem, Harlem Arts Alliance, and Jazzmobile, the cultural partners designated by Empire State Development, enhancing Apollo’s advocacy for African American, African-diasporic, and Harlem-based artists and culture.

Apollo’s vice chairman Ronald O. Perelman, with his good friend Jon Bon Jovi, started Apollo in the Hamptons as a way of helping the grande dame of Harlem reach her yearly financial goals, and he does it with a super-exclusive, one-night-only annual fundraiser, this year on Saturday, August 3. The event, since its inception in 2009, has raised approximately $24 million.

Ella Fitzgerald was one of the first Amateur Night winners. Independent/Apollo Theater Archives

The funds have been funneled into the non-profit Harlem hotspot, supporting the artistic, educational, and outreach programs, and continuing to provide a cultural anchor worthy of its legacy.

The private dinner and concert at Perelman’s The Creeks in East Hampton is the Hamptons distilled to its finest hour of celebrity, nature, and charitable giving. Imagine an intimate music event featuring performers like Jennifer Lopez, Justin Timberlake, Usher, Bon Jovi, and Lionel Richie — all past performers. This year’s line-up includes The Black-Eyed Peas, Dave Matthews Band, Maggie Rogers, Gary U.S. Bonds, and The Isley Brothers — winners of Amateur Night in the early ’60s — along with some special guest stars as yet to be divulged.

Tables at Apollo in the Hamptons start at a cool $100,000, going up to $250,000.

“The staff, community, students, and artists of the Apollo Theater appreciate Ronald Perelman’s out-standing generosity and commitment to the organization,” said Apollo Theater president and CEO Jonelle Procope. “Apollo in the Hamptons has helped the Apollo’s education program to expand significantly and we look forward to its continued expansion as we prepare to open two new theaters at the Victoria in fall 2020.”

“The theaters at the Victoria will expand the Apollo’s artistic programs, allowing the theater to work with more emerging and established artists from Harlem and around the globe. The Apollo will also have the opportunity to increase its educational programs for thousands of NYC school students, and its community-wide programs for its neighbors,” Procope continued.

“The Apollo is in discussions with local arts organizations, to program performing arts presentations, workshops, and artistic collaborations throughout the year, and offer space to additional non-profits to use. This will ensure an active, vibrant cultural center,” she said.

And how is the Apollo celebrating its 85th birthday? “The Apollo was the subject of a major documentary which will air on HBO starting November 6,” Procope said. “‘The Apollo’ opened the Tribeca Film Festival a few months ago and we are excited to share the history and the future of the Apollo on a global scale. We will be showing a special advance screening at the Apollo in October,” she said.

Past events this year included a special walk of fame ceremony honoring The Temptations in June. The Temptations now have a walk of fame plaque outside of the Apollo, joining legends like Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson.

“We couldn’t have been more pleased to have the last living original Temptation Otis Williams with us on that special day,” Procope said.

The core of the Apollo, according to Procope, is “in defining and representing African American culture; as a place to entertain as well as galvanize. The Apollo provides both a stage and a mirror within the community as well as a platform and, when needed, a bullhorn to foster dialogue.”

And still, the Tree of Hope stands expectantly at each performance at the Apollo — which is like a tree itself; its roots sunk deep into culture and community, its branches of music, performance, educational outreach, and programming stretched toward the sky — waiting to see which act will get cheered or booed off the stage (which is the time-honored and acceptable way here), waiting for the new great performer, waiting to sow the seeds of hope in the next generation.

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