Harlem's Apollo Theater

 

Harlem's Apollo Theater created its fair share of legendary entertainers in the past decades, but surviving an opening night there requires more than talent. Performers also need nerves of steel and a Tree of Hope.

In 1934, the Apollo Theater opened its doors to African-American performers, and soon replaced the nearby Lafayette Theater as the most important venue for black entertainment. While patrons enjoyed performances by established musicians such as Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington, one of the Apollo's biggest attractions was the Amateur Night Contest. As the judge of the contests, notoriously raucous audiences either showered budding performers with applause or fiercely vocalized their disapproval. Ella Fitzgerald and Gladys Knight are but two Amateur Night winners, while the list of those booed off the stage includes Luther Van Dross and Lena Horne.

To brace for this tough crowd, amateurs take part in a long-standing ritual that involves touching a log for good luck. The log is a section of a tree that once stood in front of Lafayette Theater (now the Black Fashion Museum). For many African-American singers, dancers and actors in the 1920s, the quest for fame often began at informal meetings under this unassuming tree. Those who succeeded -- and many did -- often credited the tree as a good luck charm, and it became known as the Tree of Hope.

While the superstition persists to this day, the tree fell victim to exhaust and was cut down. However, its memory is preserved in both the colorful abstract sculpture near its original location and the log on stage at the Apollo. Perhaps its luck works for the theater as well. The Apollo remains as the best-known showcase in Harlem, and its Wednesday night contest is considered the oldest amateur performance hour on radio and television.

 

Copyright 2001-, Terry Muse
Revised: November 6, 2001
URL: http://black_and_hispanic.tripod.com/blackhistory/
Contact: Terry Muse