Home to burlesque shows from 1914 to 1933, the Apollo didn’t begin its role as an outlet for black artists until the 1930s. After Mayor LaGuardia began cracking down on burlesque, new owner Sidney Cohen changed formats to variety and began marketing to Harlem’s burgeoning black population. On January 26th, 1934, Cohen opened his doors to African-Americans for the first time with a "colored revue" featuring "Jazz a la Carte" and "16 Gorgeous Steppers." This was the first year of the famed Amateur Night; a young female jazz singer named Ella Fitzgerald made her debut then, shuttling herself off to fame.
In the following 35 years, the Apollo fortified its reputation as fertile ground for young black artists. Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and the Temptations made early performances there; an Amateur Night in 1969 jumpstarted the brilliant but eventually bizarre career of Michael Jackson.
But the Apollo wasn’t exclusively African-American. The Beatles announced in 1964 that they wanted to visit the Apollo more than any other theatre in the country. Sadly, the Fab Four’s appearance was a quiet moment before the storm, as race riots broke out in Harlem a year later. The neighborhood became a battle zone. Rioters tossed bottles, rocks and molotov cocktails from the roofs of buildings, sometimes at police officers, along fiery, glass-strewn 125th Street. But amid this chaos stood the respected Apollo Theatre, left unscathed by rioters and police alike.
The Apollo did experience some bumps in the next two decades. After closing as a theater, failing as a movie house and declaring bankruptcy in the late 1970s, the Apollo reopened in 1985 with a new management company and a television special. It was a welcome, peaceful and joyous return of a Harlem legend and a unique New York landmark.In the brilliant history of New York stage, no theater has a past more tumultuous than the Apollo. To think that its early owners didn’t allow blacks to enter is bizarre, given its reputation as the venue for African-American musicians from the late 1930s to today.