January 27, 2009 / 10:40 PM / 10 years ago

NY's Apollo Theater plays on after 75 years

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - New York’s Harlem district may be gentrifying, but its famed amateur night at the Apollo Theater will live on.

Organizers of the 125th Street landmark, where the careers of black musicians including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, James Brown and Jackson 5 were launched, said tickets for the popular amateur night would be cheaper as part the celebrations to mark its 75th birthday.

“It is just an amazing theater, a theater that has taught so many of us how to grace the stage,” said Dionne Warwick, the American Soul and R&B singer who first sang at the Apollo in the 1960s.

“The Apollo not only means so much to black musicians but to people around the world generally, it is a place for them to come here and to be entertained in the highest form,” she told Reuters.

Since 1934 when a 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald performed in the competition, every Wednesday night musicians perform in front of a vocal audience in the amateur contest that became a syndicated television show.

The Apollo fell into disrepair in the 1960s and 70s but was recently refurbished. It also plays host to a range of music programs and regular concerts by top performers.

In recent years Barack Obama held a fund-raiser there and fans mourned the death of singer James Brown, whose body was displayed on stage in December 2006.

Organizers and musicians said the theater would remain culturally relevant despite the changes in Harlem.

“The theater won’t lose its relevance, I just worry about the generation to come — if they can appreciate what the theater has offered, its history,” said singer Chuck Jackson.

The theater has hosted more rock and varying musical acts in recent years, said Ronald Jeffers, 55, the Apollo’s street promoter who handed out flyers for the amateur competition to people passing by outside.

But he predicted local residents who now represent a more international demographic would be open to new programs and concerts.

Inside the theater, where a new production of “Dreamgirls” will premiere at the end of 2009, Warwick clapped after watching the Apollo’s rising new singer Chanj, who sang “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Editing by Patricia Reaney

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