So you have seen Times Square, the Statue of Liberty and Central Park. What to do next? Hop on a subway uptown to Harlem and visit the legendary Apollo Theater! This neo-classical theater originally opened as a burlesque house in 1914. The owners were Jules Hertig and Harry Seamon, two of the biggest burlesque producers of the day. Like most theaters in the United States at that time, the theater was only open to white patrons and only offered opportunities to white performers. When Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia imposed a ban on burlesque in 1933 the theater had to shut its doors.
The theater reopened as the Apollo and began its new life in 1934, under owner Sidney Cohen. The now-renamed Apollo Theater was geared towards the African-American community in Harlem, which had become a hotbed of culture during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s. They prioritized giving performing opportunities to African-American performers, though they booked white performers as well. Within the next few years, future legends Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey would be introduced to Harlem audiences via the theater’s “Amateur Night.” (Ella Fitzgerald was only 15 years old at the time!) Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and the Count Basie Orchestra also debuted at the new theater in those first few years.
The Apollo Theatre is located in the heart of Harlem, at 253 West 125th Street. The nearest subway stations are the 125th station for the A, B, C or D trains, or the 125th station for the 2 or 3 trains. We recommend using this link for directions to the Apollo Theater from anywhere in the New York City area.
TIP: Big Bus, Gray Line, in fact all of the hop-on, hop-off bus companies offer stops at the Apollo Theater and serve as their drop-off and pick-up point for Harlem. Read about the different bus company tickets on our blog.
Tour the Apollo Theater
You can see the Apollo on our walking tour of Harlem (see our calendar for dates/ times), but if you want to learn more about the theatre and its fascinating history, the Apollo offers tours every day of the week! The tours are not free, but they are well worth the cost. They are led by the resident historian of the Apollo Theatre, Mr. Billy Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell has been working for the Apollo Theatre since 1965, when he was hired as a teenager to be a backstage gofer for visiting celebrities. He has seen much of the Apollo’s history firsthand and is full of stories about the legendary performers that have graced this venue. His passion for the theatre is completely infectious. (It’s the only place he has ever worked!)
Some things to know…
You must call ahead to ask about availability. You can contact Billy Mitchell, Tour Director, at 212-531-5337. You can also email inquiries via a direct link on their website (www.apollotheatre.org). Select the drop-down for “Programs,” and then select “Historic Tours.”
Visit the Apollo Theater
If you want to see a show at the Apollo Theater, you will have a variety of options! They have a very full schedule of performances year-round, and their calendar can be found on their website. Tickets can be purchased on Ticketmaster.
Amateur Night at the Apollo
The Apollo has perhaps become best known for their “Amateur Night,” which has seen the debuts of the Jackson 5, Lauryn Hill, James Brown and countless others. Amateur Night has several vaudeville-style quirks, including an “Executioner” who, along with the audience, decides when a performer must leave the stage. This is done ceremoniously with a broom that “sweeps” performers offstage. The audience members are openly encouraged to be verbal with their opinions of the performances. The original host of Amateur Night, Ralph Cooper, said of the very first time, “I told them the rules: ‘If you like the performer, cheer. You know how to cheer, don’t you? And the audience let out a roar that rattled windows all over Harlem.”
Sitting on the stage at each Amateur Night is a stump from the Tree of Hope (right), a tree taken from a stretch of Seventh Avenue in Harlem that was once called the Boulevard of Dreams. Each performer rubs the Tree of Hope for good luck, hoping that they will follow in the footsteps of all of the greats that got their start at the Apollo on Amateur Night. The competition was televised from 1987 to 2008 as a part of the Showtime at the Apollo broadcast. 1093 episodes were recorded. Tickets can be purchased on Ticketmaster. Goldstar often offers 50% off on tickets to see Amateur Night at the Apollo.
For the Ultimate Day in Harlem…
Take the 11am Apollo Tour on a Tuesday and then take our 2pm Harlem Tour! (See our calendar for more details.) Or, for the full Apollo experience, take the 11am Apollo Tour on a Wednesday and then return for Amateur Night at 7:30pm! (Check their website for tickets- they will run anywhere from $20-$32). In between the tour and Amateur Night you can sample some of Harlem’s legendary soul food.