The Apollo Theater in the 1950s.
Harlem’s Apollo Theater was once a whites-only burlesque house, until the city shut down the circuit in 1934. That’s when Frank Schiffman, a promoter specializing in what was then called “race music,” bought the place. He recruited young talents like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, James Brown, and Billie Holiday—many of whom got their start at the Apollo’s famous “Amateur Night,” at which only those who received the audience’s approval were invited back to perform. Schiffman was a businessman, who reportedly refused to book Apollo performers who played competing venues. But he—and, later, his son, Bobby—provided African American musical acts a respectable venue from which to launch their careers. As the Apollo celebrates its 75th anniversary with an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, reporter Eric Molinsky considers the theater’s founding father.