This Month in NYS History – The Apollo Theater Opens in Harlem – January 26, 1934
Prior to becoming a venue for black entertainers, the Apollo, which was built in 1913, was formerly the Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater. Like many American theaters during this time, blacks were not allowed to perform or attend as patrons.
In 1933, Fiorello La Guardia, former New York City Mayor, started a campaign against burlesque. His actions resulted in the closure of Hurtig & Seamon’s, along with many other New York theaters. However, the building didn’t stay vacant for long.
In the 1930s, Harlem was rapidly becoming the largest urban black community in the nation. Owners, Sydney S. Cohen and Morris Sussman, soon reopened the building as the 125th Street Apollo Theater. They began marketing variety revues to gain the attention of the growing African American community in Harlem.
On January 26, 1934, the 125th Street Apollo Theater’s first performance “Jazz a la Carte” was headlined by Benny Carter and his Orchestra, Ralph Cooper and Aida Ward. For a number of years, it was New York’s only theater to hire black entertainers.
The Apollo’s famous Amateur Night dates back to the theater’s earliest days. In 1934, Ella Fitzgerald won $25 as one of the first winners of Amateur Night. The competition has jump-started the careers of legendary performers, including Billy Holiday, James Brown, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, and Lauryn Hill. The Apollo Theater remains one of the only institutions in the nation where emerging talent and legendary performers share the same stage.