THE BLOG
02/26/2014 05:24 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2014

The Apollo Theater and Politics

When President Obama famously serenaded Al Green at the Apollo Theater during a $200-per-ticket fundraiser two years ago he became the latest -- and certainly the coolest -- Democratic politician to use the Apollo as the focal point for a political cause. In the run-up to the 2000 Primary, and with great symbolic importance on the part of the Democratic Party, the Apollo hosted a presidential debate between contenders Vice President Al Gore and former Senator Bill Bradley. And the Party continued after President Bill Clinton opened his post-presidential office just down 125th Street from the Apollo. In April 2002, Clinton appeared at an Apollo fundraising concert with performances by Michael Jackson, Tony Bennett, Reuben Blades and K.D. Lang that raised almost $3 million for the Democratic National Committee.

Throughout its history, the theater was always available for special benefit shows, and the Apollo hosted dozens of them. During World War II, the theater supported the men and women in uniform by setting aside 35 tickets each day for the soldiers at the Harlem Defense Recreation Center. Also, headliners on each week's bill -- Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Robinson, Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, Earl Hines, Willie Bryant, the Ink Spots, and Lena Horne -- entertained and socialized with the servicemen, making Tuesdays at Harlem's U.S.O. Center "Apollo Night."

As the African-American community became increasingly politicized, especially during the Civil Rights movement, so did the Apollo. The family who ran the Apollo, the Schiffmans, supported a host of organizations such as the NAACP, CORE, the Urban League, and SNCC. In 1964, it gave "Passes for Equality," allowing one free admission to anyone donating $2.50 to CORE.

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote to Frank Schiffman to express his gratitude "for the dedicated aid you have given to us and to the civil rights movement" through personal donations and the use of the Apollo for benefits. His letter of appreciation proudly hung in the Apollo office.

From 1966 to 1971 the theater presented about two dozen "community activities" such as educational programs and local politically-oriented theater productions. That included a 1971 benefit for the families of those killed in the state's deadly response to the Attica Prison riot. On that show, John Lennon finally realized a wish he first expressed 50 years ago this month when he appeared on the Apollo stage, along with his wife, Yoko.

Throughout the sixties the Apollo became the de facto sponsor of scores of spontaneous happenings and events. "If there were demonstrations in this community," Bobby Schiffman told newspaper columnist Pete Hamill, "the Apollo was often the focal point mainly because they knew you could attract TV cameras at the Apollo when you couldn't get them elsewhere in Harlem."

In 1964 a local civic group claimed that twenty-nine stores on 125th Street employed not a single black person, while others employed blacks only in menial positions. Even the Apollo and its white owners became targets of criticism and attacks, despite a long history of being on the correct side of issues effecting the black community. But whether out of true moral convictions or, as some claimed, out of a cynical sense of self-preservation, the Schiffmans did not behave like the other merchants on the street. As Percy Sutton, the African-American Manhattan borough president who would one day take over the Apollo, said in 1968, "The Schiffmans have traditionally involved themselves in Harlem community affairs. If all businessmen had done as much, community tension would be considerably lessened."

When the Apollo could not get Hollywood studios to allow it to show first-run black films in the 1970s it fought back hard. It distributed handbills reading "Jim Crow Lives." The Apollo sued the studios, distributors and exhibitors, and probably in reaction to that, Warner Bros. relented.

The Schiffmans made a conscious effort to make the Apollo a part of the community. "I want them to feel bad when a performer gives us the shaft," Bobby Schiffman was quoted in my book, Showtime at the Apollo. "I want them to feel bad when the roof leaks. I want them to feel bad when we can't get a first-run film."

It got more complicated when the supremely well-connected Sutton and his Inner City Broadcasting Co. took over the Apollo in 1981. He poured millions of his own and his company's money into his beloved Apollo, and along with Congressman Charles Rangel, who became Chairman of the Apollo Board, led massive renovation and corporate outreach programs. Yet, in 1998 when the Daily News initiated a series of hard-hitting articles and editorials criticizing the Apollo's financial dealings and decrying the dilapidated condition of the theater, Sutton agreed to settle a state lawsuit for $1 million, and Rangel resigned.

Throughout its history the iconic Apollo has been far too important to its community to remain just a showplace removed from the political climate of the day.

Ted Fox is the author of Showtime at the Apollo: The Story of Harlem's World Famous Theater, the definitive history of the Apollo which has just been published as a Kindle ebook: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00HRXKTU4. He is also the author of In The Groove, a collection of interviews with men who have shaped the music industry. He produces and manages Grammy-winner Buckwheat Zydeco and lives in upstate New York. You can read more about Showtime at the Apollo and get Apollo news on Facebook and Twitter, and at Apollobook.com.