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Apollo Theater Marks Major Milestone

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Harlem has a big celebration on tap this week as one of its true treasures, the Apollo Theater, marks a major milestone. NY1's Dean Meminger filed the following report on the theater's 75-year history.

Funk, soul, jazz, dance, hip hop, the Apollo Theater is the place where stars are born and legends are made.

But the Apollo is a legend itself. This week it's celebrating its 75th anniversary of playing an historic role in the lives of the black community.

"In 1934, they allowed blacks to come in here, but not to sit down and see a show. We came in to perform for an all-white audience," explains Billy Mitchell, an Apollo Theater historian.

Prior to that production, the theater had several different names and owners. At one point, it was a burlesque theater, where backs were not welcome.

A lot of has changed at the 125th Street hot spot since then. Every major Black singer has either performed at the site or has wanted to. Performer Aretha Franklin remembers coming to the Apollo in the 1950s and 1960s as a fan.

"Such great shows," recalls Franklin. "I would come up here and see my friends. At the time, I didn't have any hit records. I would just come to the Apollo to see my friends, including all of the Motown people, The Four Tops, The Jewels, they all performed here."

"I remember Gladys Knight coming here and telling the manager that she saw these kids at a talent show in Chicago and she wanted to give them a chance to perform at Amateur Night," says Mitchell. "They were the Jackson brothers and Michael was nine years old and they won."

Apollo staffers say the theater is all about making no names, big names. Since 1934, Wednesday night has been Amateur Night at the Apollo.

"If you are good, you are going to feel the love; they are going to embrace you," says Apollo Foundation Chief Executive Officer and President Jonelle Procope. "If you are not good, you are going to know it."

Although the Apollo is rich in culture, over the years, the theater has suffered financially. In the late 1970s and early 80s, there was even the threat that it would be shuttered.

Businessman and Harlem political leader Percy Sutton bought the Apollo in 1984, keeping the doors open, but still there were money problems. The state finally stepped in, and took it over. The state currently owns the theater, with the non-profit Apollo Foundation operating it.

"In 1991, we became a foundation, and what that means is that we have to raise money for almost everything that goes on in the theater," explains Procope.

But the Apollo continues to move forward with great shows.

In this anniversary year, there will be collaborations with Carnegie Hall and an oral history project of the Apollo conducted with help from Columbia University.

It's all part of an effort to make sure the Apollo's great legacy will be told for generations to come.

To find out about free anniversary tours of the Apollo and special programs for the 75th year, go to ApolloTheater.org or call 212-531-5305.

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