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Comedian Wayne Brady, decked out in a tuxedo, a white flower pin adorning his lapel, strides across the Apollo stage with a wide smile. As host of the eighth annual Apollo Theater Spring Gala, he cracks jokes, sings and generally works hard at keeping the audience warmed up for the night’s musical acts: Patti LaBelle, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige and honoree Chaka Khan. Suddenly, Brady stops the show, phone in hand.

“Who is @Furthermucker? Is there a Miles Marshall Lewis out there?”

A few heads crane in my direction. Not those of Gayle King or BET president Debra Lee—at least not yet. Just the heads of some friends who happen to know where I’m sitting, about 20 rows from the stage. I raise my hand and stand, at which point Brady leaps from the stage. I’d hit Twitter immediately after his improvised performance with the band, remarking that he’d sounded great. OK, maybe there was a hint of snark—it is Twitter. Brady strolls up the aisle reading my tweet to the audience, finishing as he arrives at Row T. He points his mic in my direction, offering me the opportunity to explain my perceived dis. Now King, Lee and everyone else stares. All eyes on us, I go along with the bit.

“It was a compliment!”

“A compliment?!” he says, with mock outrage. Raucous laughter. Brady heads back to stage left, informing the audience about his 2009 Grammy nomination (for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance for “A Change Is Gonna Come”). He leaves me behind with a “check the résumé, brother,” hops back up and resumes the show.

People approach me for the rest of the evening, part of it set in a humongous structure built behind the Apollo. Amid the open bar and upscale soul food, D-Nice (who’d become the DJ superstar of the COVID-19 quarantine some seven years later) spins classic Stevie Wonder and contemporary Beyoncé as I enjoy my 15 seconds of fame.

The Apollo Spring Gala is the theater’s annual fundraiser. (The 2021 iteration—hosted by comedian Amanda Seales with performances by Morris Day and The Temptations—raised more than $2 million.) The Apollo organizes year-round artistic and community programming, funded for a decade and a half by this swanky benefit. Featuring appearances by crowd-pleasers like The O’Jays and Nile Rodgers, Salt-N-Pepa and Tony! Toni! Toné!, the gala recognizes “individuals and corporations for their outstanding contributions to the performing arts, community leadership and philanthropic support of initiatives in the African American community.”

Having struggled financially at various points in its illustrious history, since 1991 the Apollo Theater has been owned by the State of New York, which created the not-for-profit Apollo Theater Foundation to operate it. The Spring Gala is an outgrowth of the state’s participation.

“It was difficult to close our physical doors due to the pandemic,” says Apollo Senior Director of Marketing Fatima Jones. “However, we continued to find ways to support our Harlem community by working with our partners—the 125th Street Business Improvement District and the Harlem Commonwealth Council—to provide micro-grants to small and independent Harlem businesses affected by COVID. Together, we’ve distributed $20,000.”

“The Apollo has a robust education program,” she continues, “which includes workshops and tours for schools, curriculum materials derived from the theater’s history of performance and career development for teens and adults through the Apollo Theater Academy. Before COVID, we worked with more than 20,000 students across the city. We’re currently serving students through digital learning initiatives.”


The 1970s hit the Apollo hard. In December 1975, three audience members were shot just after midnight at a sold-out Smokey Robinson show, two of them teens. 18-year-old Darrel Sculliark died at nearby Sydenham Hospital. A spiraling heroin epidemic caused more deaths, as well as violent property crimes, in the neighborhood.

“In the ’70s, Black acts started to play downtown venues such as the Copacabana and Madison Square Garden,” my father relates. “Aretha Franklin and The Temptations could sell out the Garden. The Apollo couldn’t compete with that. The number of shows was cut back to three per day during the week.”

“Integration opened up access to venues that had a larger seating capacity,” confirms Lisa Cortés, producer of HBO’s The Apollo. “Understandably, some artists went for the opportunities that offered a greater financial upside. And those venues afforded them exposure to more diverse audiences.”

The Apollo fell into disrepair.

Again recalling the ’60s, Dad continues, “The theater would close during the summer for renovations. You’d think they’d make a lot of money over the summer, but in those days, a lot of teenagers were sent South for the summer to stay with aunts or grandmas. The grand reopening would be around Labor Day. Some years, there’d be a partial paint job over the same chipped walls. Other renovations were in name only, with no change whatsoever.”

Every Fourth of July we’d visit a cousin who lived on Harlem’s Riverside Drive. He had a fantastic view of the city’s annual fireworks. In 1975, from his balcony, we saw cars lined up at a nearby gas station snaking around the block. Amid an energy crisis the likes of which the country had never seen, three months after the Daily News ran the headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” a month after someone shot and killed Darrel Sculliark, Bobby Schiffman closed the Apollo. The January 1976 marquee read solemnly: “THE END.”

That spring The Apollo Presents produced six specials designed to revive the theater’s fortunes featuring acts it could no longer really afford: Labelle, Ashford & Simpson, Cab Calloway and Count Basie. Only two of the six were broadcast. They failed to revive the theater’s fortunes.

Two years later, a New York Amsterdam News headline announced, “Secrecy Clouds Apollo’s New Owners,” revealing that a consortium of Harlem businessmen, led by the mysterious Guy Morris (who, in fact, did not exist), had purchased the theater. The New York Times Magazine called Harlem heroin dealer Nicky Barnes “Mr. Untouchable” in a 1977 cover feature; one of his associates, Guy Fisher, had actually bought the Apollo, financing some renovations late in the decade.

The theater reopened briefly in 1978, thereafter hosting historic shows by Parliament-Funkadelic and Bob Marley & the Wailers. An epic, 11-night stretch of P-Funk shows (“George Clinton’s Production of Popsicle Stick, Starring Parliament-Funkadelic”) kicked off in October 1979, landing the Mothership—their 20-foot, 1,200-pound flying saucer—on the Apollo stage night after night. In a trio of dates promoting their 1979 album, Survival, Marley and company brought reggae to the Apollo for the first time. But soon thereafter, the theater was shuttered once more.

The final phoenix-from-the-ashes moment arrived in May 1985, when the Apollo Theater celebrated its 50th anniversary with a three-hour NBC TV special, Motown Returns to the Apollo. A multimillion-dollar rehabilitation had come courtesy of the Inner City Broadcasting Corporation, spearheaded by its founder, former Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton. Hosted by Bill Cosby, attended by a star-studded black-tie audience, the show featured, among other delights, Stevie Wonder performing “Sir Duke,” George Michael doing “Careless Whisper” and a gospel medley from Mavis Staples, Al Green, Little Richard and Patti LaBelle.

This newfangled Apollo—crystal chandelier, red-and-gold-trimmed box seats, plush purple carpet—is the Apollo of Showtime at the Apollo, which debuted on September 12, 1987, ran until May 24, 2008 and was revived in 2018. This is the Apollo I know from attending a taping of the show during college, enjoying the Spring Galas of the 2010s, seeing D’Angelo launch his world tour for Black Messiah and watching premiere screenings of films like Get on Up and What Happened, Miss Simone?

“Time and again, people come together at the Apollo to celebrate cultural moments and mourn their icons,” says marketing director Jones. “Following the death of Aretha Franklin, the front of the Apollo was instantly transformed into a celebration; fans came from across the city, bringing flowers, drawings and words of affection. We turned on the outdoor speakers to play her music, and it was a great impromptu celebration of her life that lasted well into the evening.”

James Brown’s monster Live at the Apollo may have made middle Americans who’d never heard of the venue aware of its existence in 1964, but since then, it’s spawned B.B. King’s Live at the Apollo (1992), CBS’s Bruno Mars: 24K Magic Live at the Apollo (2017)—even Guns N’ RosesLive at the Apollo (2017). Not to mention the acclaimed documentary.

On December 28, 2006, James Brown’s body lay in repose on the Apollo Theater stage in a gold coffin lined with white velvet, three days after he was pronounced dead of heart failure at the age of 73. Thousands stood up and down the Apollo Walk of Fame and around the corner of Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (Seventh Avenue), just like at Brown’s sold-out concerts of the ’60s.

Indoors, J.B.’s Live at the Apollo played on a loop. The beloved venue’s newly computerized marquee read: “Rest in Peace Apollo Legend, The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, 1933-2006.” Mourners shed tears. And the theater’s status as the premiere communal space for African American culture remained—and remains—undeniable.

Time to get the hell outta Dodge. (7/19a)
The score at the half (7/19a)
Hat trick (7/19a)
He's a one-man dynasty. (7/19a)
One titan salutes another. (7/19a)
Who's already a lock?
Three chords and some truth you may not be ready for.
The kids can tell the difference... for now.
The discovery engine is revving higher.

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