Harlem Overflows with Soul and Spirit as the Old Apollo Opens a New Era

updated 05/20/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/20/1985 01:00AM

Its glory years had graced its marquee with names like Basie and Ellington, Fats Waller and Leadbelly, Bessie Smith and Billy Eckstine. New York's Apollo Theatre in Harlem was, for over four decades, both a Mecca for fans and a matrix for talent—and one of the few venues where audiences, black and white, would check their differences at the door to hear Billie Holiday sing the blues or Satchmo flaunt his brass.

In later years the Apollo's grandness faded like its trappings, and in 1976 the theater was shuttered, a derelict symbol of urban decline. Last week, when the curtain rose once again and showed the results of a $10 million rehabilitation project, there was more than a new generation of performers on hand. There were TV cameras to record the gala reopening—and the Apollo's 50th anniversary—for airing on NBC next Sunday (May 19). There was also the ghost of a time now gone but clearly remembered.

It came on nice and easy as Gregory Hines glided and tapped across the stage. It shook the new crystal chandeliers as Little Richard led a gospel-style Joy, Joy, Joy. And, as Patti La-Belle contorted and belted her way through You'll Never Walk Alone, it nearly rocketed the stage right out of the Big Apple. "Here in Harlem, in the middle of so much despair," said concertgoer Jesse Jackson, "the Apollo revival comes as a kind of hope."

Beforehand onlookers had lined up 25 deep behind police barricades to watch new glamour fill the 1,490-seat auditorium. They had screamed as limos unloaded rhythm and bop singers DeBarge and actor Taimak from The Last Dragon. ("That ain't no car," one witness gasped, "that's a house.") Another contingent in formal wear arrived from an unlikely spot several blocks away: the subway. They had begun the evening at a private bash in a candlelit midtown station, where waiters served champagne and a jazz combo played. A chartered subway car (graffiti free) let them take the A-Train uptown—as Duke Ellington surely would have wanted.

Once inside the theater, the squirming-room-only crowd relaxed into rowdy Apollo tradition. They yelled out praise, whooped for joy and eased the minds of performers who remembered that Apollo audiences used to throw food and shoes when they were unhappy. Emcee Bill Cosby egged them on, chiding those who started yawning during TV-filming delays. "It's pitiful to' see your heads dropping back and forth like that," he said with mock sternness. "Stop it. You'll get whiplash." Even when Diana Ross' late arrival—by helicopter from Atlantic City—required reshooting the finale, the crowd cheered.

At 2:15 a.m. they were rewarded with soul food served at a nearby schoolyard. Apollo stars old and new wandered around the circus tent and reminisced. "The Apollo was like my home after school," said Stevie Wonder, who first performed Fingertips there at 11. "I would study backstage between shows." Gregory Hines remembered play shoot-outs with Nipsey Russell on the staircase before performances. From the night's show-stealer, Patti LaBelle: "I miss the card games between shows and the way people used to sell hot furs and jewelry backstage. We used to have hot dogs for dinner there. We put them on light bulbs to heat them up and ate them after the show."

Energetic souls, including Dick Cavett, boogied to the band till about 4 a.m., as if to show that all-night Harlem parties were back again. New Apollo owner Percy Sutton hopes to keep the block hopping after the completion of renovations, which include a TV studio and a black entertainment museum. On May 22 the famous Apollo amateur nights begin again, and the next day Hall and Oates will perform.

David Letterman's bandleader, Paul Shaffer, who backed up a few of the evening's performers, summed up his feelings for his first Apollo run: "Talk about soul heaven. This Jew achieved it tonight." But the happiest faces in the crowd may have been the sepia photos of past Apollo greats lining the lobby. As Sarah Vaughan entwined her sultry voice in a duet with her jazz mentor, Billy Eckstine, it seemed that somewhere Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and Jackie Wilson must surely have been tapping their feet and singing along.

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