Showtime At The Apollo

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Martin Luther King’s Letter to the Apollo

In every way the Apollo Theater was a vital part of the Harlem community. Since 125th Street was Harlem’s main commercial artery, the merchants greatly depended on the Apollo to draw crowds to the street and generate traffic in their stores. A hot show at the Apollo meant money in the bank for everyone on 125th Street.

Local legend has it that theater owner Frank 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, a well-known Greek-run steak house, 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.

The Schiffmans supported a host of organizations such as the NAACP, CORE, the Urban League, SNCC, the local YM and YWCA, and many others, and Frank Schiffman was one of the founders of the Freedom National Bank. A letter of appreciation from Martin Luther King, Jr., proudly hung in the Apollo office. The theater was always available for special benefit shows, and the Apollo hosted dozens of them, including a 1971 benefit for the families of the Attica dead, when John Lennon finally realized his wish and appeared on the Apollo stage, along with his wife, Yoko.

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 has said. “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…“ They did feel bad when the Apollo had troubles. But more often they had reason to feel good. For years the theater was billed as “Harlem’s High Spot”—and that it was.

January 20, 2014

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