African American Studies Apollo Theater
Jaye Austin Williams
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0020


The historic landmark known for the past century as the Apollo Theater, located at 253 West 125th Street, between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass Boulevards in Harlem, New York City, both exceeds singular definition and defies mere historical indexing. Further, the Apollo Theater persists as a barometer for the fundamentally constant condition of blacks in the United States; not least, those who continue to reside in Harlem today, under the press of the newest wave of millennial, corporate gentrification. As such, it stands as a dynamic nexus at which politics and culture meet, revealing how the sonic, eruptive potential of black political foment in transatlantic slavery’s wake is so often muted by the sonic reverberations of cultural celebration and consumption. This eclipsing does not, however, eradicate the fusion of political foment to black life in ways it is merely conditional to other lives. The landmark’s mercurial history is testament to this distinction. From its prequel, as a house of burlesque (the New Burlesque Theater) owned by Jules Hurtig and Harry Seamons, to its birth as the Apollo Theater, years after Sidney Cohen bought and first reopened it in 1914, the world-famous, heavily trodden landmark has withstood many heydays, through its bankruptcy and closing between 1974 or 1975 (sources vary as to which year it actually closed, suggesting a protracted process of closure) to its much-lauded reopening in 1984. Along that trajectory toward “rebirth,” there were just as many, if not more, days of disrepair and neglect. Over the years, the Apollo Theater has showcased talent from Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald, to dance headliners, to bebop acts and big bands, to the more recent musical, hip hop and comedy stars, to enduring events such as “Amateur Night at the Apollo” and iconic series such as “Showtime at the Apollo.” Nonetheless, that political simmer has persisted between the cultural plenitude. The references that follow demonstrate this, covering a range of historical, political, archival, and cultural documentation. In the early twenty-first century, restorative fervor is on the rise yet again, as the Apollo organization has embarked on a massive online archival project aiming to document its many historic intersections across the past one hundred years. In addition, numerous other restorative projects designed to underscore the Apollo Theater’s vast significance appear throughout these entries, the categories of which suggest that the Apollo is perhaps best documented as an intersectional landmark.

General Overviews

The term “historic landmark” connotes a vast significance; yet landmarks can be delimited by an iconicity rooted in time, geographic location, and utility such that the enormity and multifariousness of their labors across time and space can be missed. The Apollo Theater exemplifies this enormity. The categories that follow attempt to thematically organize monographs, reviews, analyses, and archival documents that attest to the inextricability of culture from politics, and vice versa; and to emphasize the historical significance of both, where black life, its unique challenges, and the cultural and political gestures of resistance and perseverance are concerned. This is to say, the Apollo Theater, as an intersectional locus of history, culture, and socio-politics is, in a sense, uncategorizable and remains in need of even more scholarly engagement alongside the archiving and chronicling of its innumerable stagings. The ensemble of texts in this General Overviews section exemplifies this. Baker 2002, a review of James Brown’s performance at the Apollo Theater memorializing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination thirty-four years before, coalesces soul music, history, political activism, and critique of that which violently refuses black activism, on the Apollo stage. Kinloch 2007 chronicles two Harlem youths’ struggles toward self-definition, their observations about the claiming of Harlem’s treasured landmark by non-blacks who are steadily migrating there, and the corresponding rise of ticket costs for the Apollo Theater’s events. Hoffman 2003 examines diversity-as-industry, underscoring the observations of the youth in Kinloch’s project. Thomas 1997 highlights the Apollo Theater as an educational resource for the neighborhood youth enrolled in programs at the nearby National Black Theater, suggesting the ways in which positive relations between neighborhood venues support youth in the Harlem community. Noel 1998 outlines plans to expand and refurbish the Apollo Theater, while Block 2001 looks back three years at the troubled road toward that refurbishment, which remains incomplete. Carlin and Conwill 2010 celebrates the Apollo Theater at seventy-five with an array of artistic achievement, suggesting the staying power of the artists and the landmark, amid persistent economic difficulties and the repetition of black displacement that is rampant at the time of the book’s publication. Pryce 2013 documents an event bringing cultural accomplishment and political engagement together. The entries in the Event Reviews section echo these illuminations.

  • Baker, John. “The Godfather of Soul and the Death of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Television Quarterly 33.1 (2002): 44–52.

    This review chronicles a live event conceived of and performed by James Brown at the Apollo Theater, in response to King’s assassination. It was produced in conjunction with Metromedia’s WNEW Channel 5 in New York City and narrated by John Baker, who served as assistant program manager at the time.

  • Block, Valerie. “It’s Showtime at the Apollo; Theater near Deal on Huge Expansion; Calling Tina Brown.” Crain’s New York Business 17 (2001): 3.

    Utilizing a three-act play structure conceit, this article provides an update on the plans to expand the landmark by way of purchasing a neighboring venue (the Victoria Theater) and outlines the difficulties, legal and otherwise, of the project’s completion, dating back to 1998.

  • Carlin, Richard, and Kinsasha Holman Conwill. Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment. Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 2010.

    In conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution and the Apollo Theater Foundation, this book, a companion piece to the exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, boasts an array of writers reflecting on the breadth of black talent in a context of social, cultural, and political reflection in honor of the Apollo Theater’s seventy-fifth anniversary.

  • Hoffman, Lily M. “The Marketing of Diversity in the Inner City: Tourism and Regulation in Harlem.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27.2 (2003): 286–299.

    DOI: 10.1111/1468-2427.00448

    This article examines the industry of tourism and its impact on the racially and economically disenfranchised in Harlem, and underscores the significant external forces that factor in the volatile health of Harlem residents across the years; not least, the numerous on-again, off-again plans to refurbish the neighborhood’s landmark cultural beacon, the Apollo Theater.

  • Kinloch, Valerie. “Youth Representations of Community, Art, and Struggle in Harlem.” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 116 (2007): 37–49.

    DOI: 10.1002/ace.275

    In the midst of this article’s analysis of intergenerational learning, the two black young adults at the center of its study, Quentin and Kavon, share their observations about the ramifications of community revitalization. They cite the Apollo Theater’s refurbishment as a barometer for the encroaching racial and economic displacement of Harlem’s residents, symptomatic of which are prohibitive ticket costs and the symbolic claiming of the cultural landmark by Harlem’s neo-settlers.

  • Noel, Peter. “Art of the Deal.” The Village Voice 43.25 (1998).

    Noel provides an historical context for the Apollo Theater and outlines the various prospective players in the projected revitalization of the venue, including its institutional infrastructure, prospective additions to its executive board, and possible corporate investors.

  • Pryce, Vinette K. “‘Sisterhood’ R&B Vets Captivate Fans at Landmark Apollo Theater.” New York Beacon 20.24 (2013): 20.

    This review not only critiques an event at the Apollo Theater in 2013 but also documents one of the many events at the Apollo that stage the intersection of rhythm and blues recording and political histories, including figures such as Coretta Scott King and Angela Davis, among others.

  • Thomas, Lundeana Marie. Barbara Ann Teer and the National Black Theatre: Transformational Forces in Harlem. New York: Garland, 1997.

    In chapter 4 of this historical profile of one of Harlem’s most politically trenchant cultural institutions, Thomas devotes a subsection to the Apollo Theater as a crucial intra-cultural resource for the National Black Theater’s constituents, precisely because of its historical, cultural, and political significance to Harlem residents.

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