Since 1934, every Wednesday evening aspiring artists take the stage at New York City’s Apollo Theater. They come with hopes that the magic of the historical theater and the approval of the audience will launch their careers in the music world.
These young artists perform on a stage that has been home to an impressive legacy of world-class talent including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Michael Jackson, and Sarah Vaughn. In fact, it’s this musical legacy that makes the Apollo Theater an excellent attraction for student group travelers who have an interest in music and African American history.
One of the most famous clubs for popular music in the United States, the Apollo is also known for its association with African-American performers. When the Apollo first opened, it was one of New York City’s leading burlesque clubs and was attended by mostly white-only audiences.
In 1934, however, the Apollo Theater changed ownership and opened its doors to African-American patrons with a “colored review.” The new owner’s motivation for featuring African American talent and entertainment was attributed to the fact that the theater’s surrounding neighborhood, Harlem, was made up mostly of African American residents. Black entertainers were also cheaper to hire and offered quality shows for reasonable rates. One of the theater’s first African American Amateur Nights featured a young dancer Ella Fitzgerald, who quickly went on to became a singing sensation.
The Apollo Theater also featured old-time vaudeville favorites such as Tim Moore, Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, and Moms Mabley, and in later years launched the careers of contemporary entertainers such as Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Jackson 5, and Mariah Carey.
In the 1950s, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, with their rhythm and blues background, were initially mistaken for an African American group and booked to play at the Apollo. At first the crowd booed the white performers, but their talent eventually won over the audience and they were accepted.
Although the club fell into decline in the 1970s, it made a comeback in the 1980s through a spirited campaign launched to revive public interest. Eventually, the Apollo Theater was recognized as a national, state, and city landmark.
Today, the Apollo is open six events a week, and features performing arts troupes, community programs, concerts, and special events. It is New York’s third most popular tourist attraction, and draws an estimated 1.3 million visitors a year.
Student groups can schedule a tour of the facility that illuminates the history of Harlem through the lens of the Apollo, its legendary accomplishments, its role in the community, and American history as it relates to 20th- and 21st-century music. The one-hour guided tour also reveals little-known facts about the theater and the legendary people who have performed there, while also examining the significant contributions of African-Americans and Latinos to the birth of global popular culture. Tours are available for groups of 20 or more by appointment on most week days. Student groups touring the Apollo on Wednesday can return in the evening for Amateur Night at the Apollo.