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Harlem's Apollo Theater Celebrates 80th Anniversary

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The Apollo Theater in Harlem

Billie Holiday was so terrified by her Apollo Theater debut that she had to be gently shoved on to the stage. She triumphed and earned her place at the legendary theater, which turns 80 years old today. The Apollo continues to make the world's greatest stars star struck: It was the first place The Beatles wanted to see when they flew to America -- 50 years ago next week. Elvis and Mick Jagger made pilgrimages. Superstars like Bruce Springsteen insist on playing there. Top black stars like Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige, Whoopi Goldberg and Chris Rock continue to play this little theater on Harlem's 125th Street despite being able to fill the world's greatest venues. President Obama even serenaded Al Green at the Apollo.

The Apollo has been home to world's greatest black performers: Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, Ray Charles and James Brown, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Richard Pryor, Miles Davis and Parliament Funkadelic. At a time when "downtown" white venues were off limits to blacks, the Apollo certified success for African-American performers. And it has been at the forefront of the latest trends in the black community. When Berry Gordy pitched theater owner Bobby Schiffman on his artists, they were so unknown that the Apollo first billed them as "The Motortown Revue." Bobby recalled, "We did the show in '62 -- thirty-one shows over seven days -- and it included Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder ... The show cost $7,000."

While star-struck white kids traditionally headed for Hollywood or Broadway, their black counterparts beat a path for Harlem and the Wednesday-night amateur show at the Apollo. They knew that the theater's Amateur Nights had help launch the careers of stars such as James Brown, the Jackson Five, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick and Sarah Vaughan.

They also knew they would face the toughest and most demanding audience in the world, a crowd notorious, especially on Amateur Nights, for its vocal demonstrations of displeasure. If they could please the people at the Apollo, they could please any crowd -- and maybe win a professional engagement at the theater. Yet they showed up and tried -- an estimated 15,000 performers in the first 20 years. And the tradition continued on the Showtime at the Apollo television show, and now on BET's program, Apollo Live, executive produced by Jamie Foxx.

During its heyday, the Apollo Theater probably exerted a greater influence upon popular culture than any other entertainment venue in the world. This primarily black theater presented the finest black entertainers performing the most innovative material of their day. For African-Americans it was perhaps the most important cultural institution -- not just the greatest black theater, but also a special place to come of age emotionally, professionally, socially and politically.

"The Apollo developed an aura of its own and myths of its own," Ahmet Ertegun, legendary fonder of Atlantic Records, told me in my book, Showtime at the Apollo. "It was the apex of black entertainment. It represented getting out of the limitations of being a black entertainer. If you're a black entertainer in Charlotte or Mississippi you have great constraints put upon you. But coming to Harlem and the Apollo --Harlem was an expression of the black spirit in America, it was a haven."

For white performers it was as close as they could come to the authentic black experience they loved and learned from. Through them the Apollo exerted an unprecedented influence on all of American popular culture. A young country boy from Mississippi, Elvis Presley, spent night after night at the theater in November 1955, soaking up the energy and moves of Bo Diddley, while Elvis rehearsed for his first hip-shaking national television appearance downtown. Metallica singer James Hetfield told the Apollo audience early in his show last year, "I can't believe they let us play this place. This place has so much history."

Sammy Davis, Jr. first played the Apollo in 1947 with his father and uncle as part of their Will Mastin Trio, earning $650 a week for 31 shows. He told me: "My mother had worked the Apollo Theater as a chorus girl. I lived fifteen blocks from there. To walk to the Apollo, that's big time ... It wasn't just being accepted as a performer. It was being accepted by your own people ... It was like playing the Copa. You didn't go into the Copa lightweight: they'd break your legs. But at the Apollo they'd break your heart."

In a community and race then bereft of political power, housed in society's castoffs and denied access to many of its cultural and educational centers, the Apollo Theater was a place of great pride, and it became a fabled institution of signal importance. As Ahmet Ertegun said, the Apollo fostered a mythology of its own. The truth of the Apollo's great history is the stuff of which myths are made.