The Apollo Theater-An American Musical History Institution

By George Khoury

The celebration of Black History Month could not be complete without an appreciation of the role the Apollo Theater played in African-American history. Located in New York City’s Harlem, The Apollo Hall was established by a former Civil War General Edward Ferrero as a ballroom and dance hall. Ferrero (1831-1899) was born in Spain to [parents who later moved to and settle in New York City. His father was a famous dancer and military friend of Garibaldi who opened a dance studio. Upon retirement the son took over the academy. He focused on teaching the wealthy the newest dances that would spread across the country. He quickly became known as one of the best experts on dance. He even was a dance instructor at West Point and authored a book in 1859, The Art of Dancing.

When the Civil War started, Ferrero raised a regiment using his own money. Soon his troops were known for their tight drilling. During the battle of Antietam Ferrero and his men saw distinguished duty in storming Burnside Bridge under fire. He was promoted to brigadier general. He saw action during Fredericksburg and the Siege of Vicksburg. He was transferred east and commanded a division of Black troops during the Siege of Petersburg.

He was mustered out of the service and returned to New York to lease a new building on the site of the present Apollo Theater. In 1872, he ended his lease and the building was converted into a theater. The theater closed in early 20th century. The theater in 1913 reopened for burlesque and vaudeville shows.

The Apollo Theater was in the right place at the right time. The Harlem Renaissance was starting to flower in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The neighborhood was almost exclusively black and since white performers cost more, it made sense to hire local talent. The management could offer quality entertainment at reasonable rates.

The Apollo became famous for its Amateur Nights. In 1934 a 17 year old Ella Fitzgerald made her debut and won the first prize of $25.00. It billed itself as the place “where stars are born and legends made. The careers of Stepin Fetchit, Pigmeat Markham, Billy Holiday, Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross and the Supremes, James Brown, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gay, Stevie Wonder, Sarah Vaughn, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, The Isley Brothers, Lauryn Hill and Ben E. King just to name small number. Even Jimi Hendrix performed and won first place in 1964.

An unforgettable part of the show was the “executioner” who would either sweep a poor act off the stage or prod them along with a hook to hoots, boos and howls of the audience. A source claimed that on August 16, 1957, Buddy Holly played the Apollo.
During the 1960s and 1970s, fell into disrepair and reopened as a movie theater in 1975. The Apollo reopened in 1983 when former Manhattan borough president purchased the landmark. His investment group got federal, state, and city funding as a landmark for preservation. In 1991, the building was bought by the State of New York and reopened on December 15, 2005 after $65 million renovation. The building receives 1.3 million visitors annually and continues its tradition of entertain-of all races. In December 2010 Paul McCartney performed.

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