02/20/2014 06:05 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2014

The Apollo Theater Before 125th Street Was the Black Main Street

George Carlin had a famous comedy routine called "White Harlem." I met him a couple of years before he died and when I told him I wrote Showtime at the Apollo, he became animated and excitedly told me how much he loved the place: "I was born near there in '37 and grew up on 121st Street! That was my neighborhood!"

Harlem became New York's great African-American community, of course. However the history of African Americans in the city began at the far opposite end of the island where slaves first landed. Just as the African-American Diaspora would evolve centuries later, the story of blacks in New York was one of a gradual and rarely voluntary flow from south to north.

Symbolically, perhaps, The Underground Railway led many southern blacks North, but it was the elevated Lenox Avenue subway which opened in 1904 that first led African Americans uptown to Harlem. Speculators over built apartments in anticipation of this, and turned to middle class and wealthy blacks. Black Harlem began at the upper reaches of this line from the 130s to about 14 Street from Madison Avenue to Seventh Avenue. The community grew quickly and spread in all directions, but in a reverse migration southward, only well into the 1930s did Harlem's most famous thoroughfare, 125th Street, become largely African American.

In the theater that became the Apollo 80 years ago this year, black people could not enter through the front door. Until it became the Apollo in 1934 the theater was known as Hurtig and Seamon's Burlesque, and black people were not permitted in the orchestra seats.

"There were no blacks on 125th Street," Doll Thomas -- who first started working in Harlem theaters in 1914 -- told me in my book. "That was all Irish. It was in the twenties that the switch really started to colored."

Doll had a living space in a room above the pre-renovated Apollo when I met him in 1980. "Even when I worked in the Alhambra Theater back in 1927, this neighborhood was strictly white," he recalled. "If [a black person] wanted to go into the Alhambra, or the theater that's now the Apollo, you entered from 126th Street. Up the back stairs. The Alhambra just wouldn't sell [blacks] an orchestra seat. They were either sold out or they'd flatly refuse. Also on 125th Street, Frank's Lunchroom -- you couldn't get served in there. Across the street was Childs. You couldn't get served in there. Next door was Loft's Candy Shop. Couldn't get served in there. Right down the street was Fabian's Seafood Shop. Couldn't get served in there. All the bars here and everything else was the same way."

The first theaters to change their segregationist policies were the first theaters that fell within the advance of the black community. One of the earliest to do so, and the most important theater of its time, was the Lafayette. Initially, blacks were admitted there only grudgingly, out of economic necessity, and they were relegated to the balcony, or "nigger heaven," as it was derogatorily known. Blacks were not openly admitted at the Lafayette until 1925 -- until the new regime of Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher -- the men who would take over the Apollo in 1935.

"Anyone would like these people," Frank Schiffman told a New York newspaper in 1937 two years after he took over the Apollo. "I'm the largest employer of colored theatrical help in the country." In fact, for many years the Apollo was the only theater in New York that would hire African-Americans. Virtually everyone in the Apollo except Schiffman was black, including his stage manager, Jimmy Marshall, who started with him at the Lafayette; Tom Whaley, the rehearsal band conductor and musical director; Doll Thomas, the technical director; and Norman Miller (alias Porto Rico), the number-one stagehand in charge of sound.

Local legend has it that Schiffman was personally responsible for breaking down the color barrier that existed in many of the stores and restaurants on 125th Street well into the 1940s. As the story goes, he and black film producer Oscar Micheaux went into Frank's Restaurant and ordered two steaks. When Micheaux's came smothered with pepper, Schiffman exchanged dishes with him, ordered another, and told the waiter if he ever tried that again, he'd have a hell of a fight on his hands. Soon after, blacks began working and eating there, and segregated policies elsewhere on the street slowly began to change -- if not the controversy over white ownership of businesses on 125th Street.

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: 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