- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 6, 2002

NEW YORK — Sammy Davis Jr. strolled out, stared at the audience and lost his voice. Smokey Robinson taught the Temptations the words to his latest song, "My Girl," moments before they took the stage. A family named Jackson appeared on Amateur Night and became superstars.
For decades, the Apollo Theater was a citadel for black entertainers and a proving ground for promising stars, an epicenter of black American culture. Then, after years of neglect, it went dark.
Now, the 89-year-old theater is about to undergo a bold renovation and expansion to turn it into a major cultural and performing arts center.
In the coming years, theater managers hope to spend $250 million to transform the former burlesque hall into a high-tech multiplex, complete with a clothing store, a restaurant and a recording studio.
This summer, "Harlem Song," a new musical from George C. Wolf, will debut at the Apollo the first extended engagement in the theater's history.
The play, which chronicles life in 20th-century Harlem through song and dance, is an ensemble production written and directed by Mr. Wolfe, who directed the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Topdog/Underdog." He won Tonys in 1993 for "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches" and in 1996 for "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk." BJ Crosby, nominated for a Tony as best actress in a musical in "Smokey Joe's Cafe" in 1995, stars.
"We have a chance to be much more than a music hall," says Derek Johnson, president of the Apollo Theater Foundation. "We want to show the world just how hard we are working to reclaim the stature that the Apollo traditionally has had."
Meanwhile, the first phase of the initial $50 million in renovations is under way, starting with external repairs. The Apollo's famous marquee is being restored with as much of its original material as possible. Marble and granite work from the 1920s discovered under the exterior paint will be restored as well as the theater's terra-cotta detail.
The theater will be shuttered from January to August 2003 for extensive internal improvements.
The New York architectural firms Davis Brody Bond, which restored the New York Public Library and worked on the expansion of Lincoln Center, and Beyer Blinder Belle will lead the restoration effort. Beyer Blinder Belle, which specializes in historic preservation, has directed the rehabilitation of Grand Central Station, the Ford Center for the Performing Arts in Chicago and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. The firm also is working on an urban design plan for the World Trade Center site.
Two Harlem-based firms, Bordy-Lawson Associates and Jack Travis Architect, also have been contracted to work on the landmark-designated theater.
The internal renovation will include installation of new digital lighting, a new sound system, new carpeting and seats, repairs to the roof, expansion of the restrooms, upgrades to heating and air conditioning, renovation of the dressing rooms and the addition of wheelchair ramps and lifts for the disabled.
The rowdy Amateur Night, a hallmark of the Apollo, will go on a 35-city tour, including stops in Tokyo and London, during the restoration.
The theater was on the brink of financial ruin when Mr. Johnson, a former AOL Time Warner executive, replaced Rep. Charles Rangel, New York Democrat, last year as chairman of the Apollo foundation.
The Apollo was not marketed effectively in the past, says Mr. Johnson, who plans to exploit the theater's rich history and name to rebuild its image as a major entertainment venue and cultural attraction.
"There is something in marketing called equity, and the equity hasn't been used," says Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and a foundation board member. "It's the Apollo name, more than the name of the performers, that attracts the audience."
The Apollo has been a New York legend on Harlem's 125th Street ever since the building first went up in 1914. It soon became Hurtig and Seamon's New (Burlesque) Theater, which featured striptease and vaudeville acts that played to white audiences; blacks were not allowed inside.
But in 1928, new owners changed the name to Apollo and later began showcasing black entertainers to mixed audiences as Harlem's racial makeup began to change. In 1932, Duke Ellington rocked the rafters when his band performed "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." Amateur Night began in 1934, launching the careers of such legends as Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.
For the next few decades, every major entertainer appeared on the Apollo's stage: Count Basie, Ellington, Nat "King" Cole, Billie Holiday, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Bo Diddley, Aretha Franklin and the Jackson Five.
By the 1970s, with big acts commanding big salaries, the small-capacity theater with only 1,477 seats could not keep up, went bankrupt and closed its doors in 1975. After a failed attempt as a movie house, it closed altogether.
Inner City Theatre Group rescued the cultural icon from ruin in 1981 and found a decaying nightmare inside: rotting pipes, sloppily plastered artwork, messed-up dressing rooms. Inner City refurbished the theater and reopened it in 1985 for live shows. The group also tried to turn the Apollo into a production facility for recording, videos and commercials, but the idea never really succeeded, and the theater never regained the prominence and promise of its early days.
Now, the Apollo has new hope.
This month's annual JVC Jazz Festival held some performances at the Apollo. In May, Jazz at Lincoln Center held its spring gala at the Apollo, with Mr. Wonder jamming with Wynton Marsalis. In April, Michael Jackson and Tony Bennett headlined a fund-raiser for the Democratic Party at the Apollo. Dick Parsons, chief executive of AOL Time Warner and a member of the Apollo foundation's board, held the company's annual stockholders meeting there last month.
Mr. Johnson wants to attract major events to the theater, such as the Grammy awards, held in the past at Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, which both have a greater seating capacity than the Apollo. Mr. Johnson also wants the theater to host game and talk shows, political debates and town hall meetings. True to his business roots, he also would like to merchandise the Apollo name, stamping its logo on everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs.
"That is the product by which we are most broadly known," he says.
In an effort to expand the Apollo, the theater foundation is negotiating a deal to lease the neighboring state-owned Victoria Theater. The long-range plan, which would cost $250 million and take years to complete, also includes taking over the four shops situated between the Apollo and the Victoria and giving the center a single grand facade by joining the two spaces.
"Our major constraint has been the 1,500 seats require that we charge more or subsidize our programming," Mr. Dodson says. "With the larger venue, you can play in the existing market and not be as dependent upon the subsidy."
While the Apollo is one of New York's top attractions, many visitors only see the historic theater from the top of buses, where they take snapshots and move on, says Christyne Nicholas, president of NYC & Company, the city's tourism agency.
"It already is an attraction, but it would be so much more meaningful to have it as an attraction that people can go and see a show, or have a meeting or reception or an event," Miss Nicholas says.
Mr. Johnson wants to give tourists a reason to get off the bus. He also wants to keep bustling 125th Street thriving after dark.
"We want to expand the activity here and broaden the type of things we do. I want it not merely in music, but in a broader plane of entertainment," he says.
However, some Harlem residents fear the new Apollo might forget about them.
Anthony Bowman, director of the Harlem Association for Travel and Tourism, urged the Apollo to seek the advice of local merchants. He fears the renovation and expansion will price local residents out of the venue. Simply "dressing" the Apollo up, he says, will not attract tourists if the theater loses its integrity as a cultural icon.
Harlem residents don't want to see it become the "AOL Time Warner Apollo," Mr. Bowman says.
Mr. Dodson acknowledges that the theater's renovation could lead to an increase in prices.
"But the simple fact is that you cannot have people wanting development without change," he says.
Mr. Johnson says the restoration is far broader than merely revitalizing a theater. "We have an obligation to be a catalytic engine that drives revitalization of this entire community," he says.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide