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One of the most famous venues in New York City and notable for its almost exclusively African American acts, the Apollo Theater is located in Harlem and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Steeped in African American culture, the Apollo Theater started off as a popular burlesque venue owned by Jewish businessmen and was open to white-only audiences. Eventually, however, that theater closed and the Apollo Theater reopened in a new location, catering almost exclusively to African American audiences.
Because Harlem featured a largely African American population, the owners of the Apollo Theater quickly realized that there was a vast audience for African American performers. On top of that, African American performers were cheaper to hire, and so in pre-WWII Harlem, the Apollo Theater became one of the only venues to feature African Americans. Careers were launched here, as Ella Fitzgerald made her debut at the Apollo Theater, and the theater gained popularity over the subsequent decades with such acts as Billie Holiday, The Supremes, James Brown, and the Jackson 5. Though it is not confirmed, there are claims that Buddy Holly was the first white performer to take the stage at the Apollo Theater.
In the 1980’s, the Apollo Theater once again found the spotlight after a protracted decline in the 60’s and 70’s. In 1987, the television program Showtime at the Apollo first aired, featuring both established and up-and-coming acts and launching careers yet again. Countless acts found their start at the Apollo Theater during Showtime at the Apollo, and the acts were not exclusively African American. The show still runs today and still features prominent and lesser known acts, as well as an amateur night that opens the stage to virtual unknowns.
The theater is located on 125th street in Harlem. It has been renovated and refurbished numerous times, the most recent taking place in 2005. The State of New York purchased the Apollo theater in the early 1990’s and it is now run by a non-profit organization called the Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc.
Buddy Holly was great, but he was not the first white performer at the Apollo. Jo-Ann Campbell appeared there nearly a year earlier, as did a couple of other acts.