Harlem's Apollo plans brief intermission

Historical theater will install state-of-the art sound and replace 1,400 seats

It's where jazz greats Count Basie, Bessie Smith, and Lionel Hampton played to sold-out crowds; Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan performed on amateur night; and acts like The Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder enjoyed their first major exposure - the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.

So why is America's cultural landmark closing its doors in January for a few months?

"Many people have a soulful connection with what the Apollo is all about and they should expect more rather than less - aesthetically and technologically," says David Rodrigez, executive director of the Apollo Theatre Foundation. Replacing the theater's 1,400 seats and installing state-of-the-art sound and recording systems will be part of the $6.5 million renovation. The Apollo will reopen next April.

Jazz historian Phil Leshin, who played at the Apollo five different times when he was a young musician, said the ultimate places to play in New York were the Paramount, the Capitol, and the Strand, because they paid top dollar. "But there was nothing like the enthusiasm of the audiences and that connection with American musical history you felt at the Apollo," says Mr. Leshin.

"If there were people out there who wanted to hear me, I just kept on playing," says jazz legend Hampton, recalling the time when he used to play seven shows a day at the Apollo in 1946. In a Monitor interview, Mr. Hampton said he only had time to grab a hot dog for dinner before someone would call "places!"

Hampton, now retired and living in New York city, said he fondly remembers a stage doorman named Mississippi - "as big as a football tackle" - making sure the crowds outside didn't get too rowdy. In 1996, a show called "Swing into Spring: A Harlem Tribute to Lionel Hampton" was presented at the Apollo to celebrate Hampton's 88th birthday.

In 1914, when the Apollo was built, it was just another legitimate playhouse among those presenting vaudeville, plays, and opera along "Harlem's 42nd Street." Harlem was largely a well-to-do white community, and black people weren't even allowed in the audience of the Apollo until after World War I, a time when an influx of blacks moved into the neighborhood.

Sidney Cohen, a department-store owner and president of the Motion Picture Owners of America, turned the Apollo Theatre into a black vaudeville house in 1932, and over time became a popular place to perform for major black entertainers as well as white stars, such as Bing Crosby and Tony Bennett. It was also where a young dancer-turned-singer named Ella Fitzgerald in 1934 made her debut in the Apollo's legendary tradition of Amateur Night revues.

"In the 1920s, this whole block on west 125th Street was filled with theaters," says Mr. Rodrigez. "There was the Harlem Opera House, [and] the Victoria theater next door, which is still here but has been closed for many years."

"Harlem is known worldwide as a cultural mecca for African-American entertainers," says Keith Clinkscales, treasurer of the Apollo Theatre Foundation Board of Directors and CEO of Vanguarde Media Inc.

Despite its unique place in the history of jazz, it looked like the Apollo would close permanently in the late '70s because of urban decay and bankruptcy. Spared from some of street-riot vandalism of the 1960s that defaced other buildings in the neighborhood, the Apollo did end up closing for a short time in 1975.

Gradually, the Apollo got a new lease on life as a home for TV specials, including "Motown Salutes the Apollo" in 1985 and "It's Showtime at the Apollo" in 1987, which still airs in syndication.

But its most stabilizing influence was the establishment of the Apollo Theatre Foundation. Backed by major state and local government- and private-sector funding, the not-for-profit organization formed in 1992 to operate the theater. Like the New Amsterdam, New Victory, Selwyn, and other theaters on 42nd Street, which have all been renovated and restored, the Apollo seems poised for its brightest future ever.

In May 2002, the Apollo will for the first time feature a full-length musical revue for the spring and summer months. Called "Harlem Song" and created by George C. Wolfe, producer of the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, the show will feature music by Daryl Waters, co-composer of the former Broadway hit "Bring in Da Noise." It will play six performances a week, on weekends only.

The Apollo Foundation is also exploring the possibility of presenting other big stage shows in addition to the traditional Amateur Night at the Apollo every Wednesday night and concerts by both new and veteran performers.

"We're already in discussions with shows to be booked in the January, February, March, and April months beginning in 2003," says Rodrigez. "We want to make sure some of the other open dates are filled by other performers, old and new."

James Brown, affectionately known as the "Godfather of Soul," will still occasionally pull up to the Apollo in his limousine to play the piano, Rodrigez said. 'If there's a theater with a soul," Mr. Brown often says, "it's the Apollo."

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