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Renovation Playing at the Apollo

Arts* Backers expect to spend $250 million to restore and expand the historic theater in Harlem.


NEW YORK — Sammy Davis Jr. strolled out, stared at the audience and lost his voice. Smokey Robinson taught the Temptations the words to his latest song, "My Girl," moments before they took the stage. And a family named Jackson appeared on Amateur Night and became superstars.

For decades, the Apollo Theater was a citadel for black entertainers and a proving ground for promising stars, an epicenter of black American culture. And then, after years of neglect, it went dark.

Now, the aging theater is about to undergo a bold renovation and expansion to turn it into a major cultural and performing arts center.

In the coming years, theater managers hope to spend $250 million to transform the former burlesque hall into a high-tech multiplex, complete with clothing store, restaurant and recording studio.

This summer, "Harlem Song," a new musical from George C. Wolfe, will premiere at the Apollo--the first extended engagement in the theater's 88-year history.

The play, which chronicles life in 20th century Harlem through song and dance, is an ensemble production written and directed by Wolfe, who directed the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Topdog/Underdog." "We have a chance to be much more than a music hall," says Derek Johnson, president of the Apollo Theater Foundation. "We want to show the world just how hard we are working to reclaim the stature that the Apollo traditionally has had."

Meanwhile, the first phase of the initial $50 million in renovations is underway, starting with external repairs. The Apollo's famous marquee is being restored with as much of its original material as possible. Marble and granite work from the 1920s discovered under the exterior paint will be restored as well as the theater's terra-cotta detail.

The theater will be shuttered from January to August 2003 for extensive internal improvements.

The New York architectural firms Davis Brody Bond, which restored the New York Public Library and worked on the expansion of Lincoln Center, and Beyer Blinder Belle will lead the restoration effort. Two Harlem-based firms, Bordy-Lawson Associates and Jack Travis Architect, also have been contracted to work on the landmark-designated theater.

The internal renovation will include installation of new digital lighting, a new sound system to replace the antiquated one in use, new carpeting and seats, repairs to the roof, expansion of the restrooms, upgrades to heating and air conditioning, renovation of the dressing rooms and the addition of wheelchair ramps and lifts for the disabled.

The rowdy Amateur Nights, a hallmark of the Apollo, will go on a 35-city tour, including stops in Tokyo and London, during the restoration.

The theater was on the brink of financial ruin when Johnson, a former AOL Time Warner executive, replaced Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) last year as chairman of the Apollo foundation.

The Apollo was not marketed effectively in the past, says Johnson, who plans to exploit the theater's rich history and name to rebuild its image as a major entertainment venue and cultural attraction.

"There is something in marketing called equity, and the equity hasn't been used," says Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and a foundation board member. "It's the Apollo name, more than the name of the performers, that attracts the audience."

The Apollo has been a New York legend on Harlem's 125th Street since the building first went up in 1914. It soon became Hurtig and Seamon's New (Burlesque) Theater, which featured striptease and vaudeville acts that played to white audiences; blacks were not allowed in.

But in 1928, new owners changed the name to Apollo and later began showcasing black entertainers to mixed audiences as Harlem's racial makeup began to change. In 1932, Duke Ellington rocked the rafters when his band performed "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." Amateur Night began in 1934, launching the careers of such legends as Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.

For the next few decades, many major entertainers appeared on the Apollo's stage: Count Basie, Ellington, Nat "King" Cole, Billie Holiday, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Bo Diddley, Aretha Franklin and the Jackson 5.

By the 1970s, with big acts commanding big salaries, the small-capacity theater--with only 1,477 seats--couldn't keep up, went bankrupt and closed its doors in 1975. After a failed attempt as a movie house, it closed altogether.

Inner City Theatre Group rescued the cultural icon from ruin in 1981 and found a decaying interior: rotting pipes, sloppily plastered artwork, ruined dressing rooms. Inner City refurbished the theater and reopened it in 1985 for live shows. The group also tried to turn the Apollo into a production facility for recording, videos and commercials, but the idea never succeeded.

Now, the Apollo has new hope.

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