January 26: The Apollo Theater

Apollo TheaterFor twenty years, Hurtig and Seamon’s New (Burlesque) Theater in Harlem was one of New York’s hottest venues. However, its “whites only” policy soon proved to be its undoing in the largely black neighborhood. The theater fell into disrepair in the early 1930s, but a new owner quickly came in and refurbished the venue and when the newly christened Apollo Theater was opened on January 26, 1934 the black community was welcomed with open arms.

The first performance at the Apollo was a show called Jazz a la Carte, a review headlined by Benny Carter and his Orchestra. The theater initially largely hosted these Vaudeville style reviews, but soon moved towards showcasing jazz and swing acts. Over time, the Apollo also embraced gospel and soul acts.

Of course, the Apollo’s most famous events are its famed Amateur Nights, where unknown performers take the Apollo stage in the hopes of becoming famous. However, if the Apollo audience begins to demand that an act be removed from the stage, the dreaded “executioner” arrives on stage and use a broom to literally sweep the performer(s) off the stage. One early winner of an Apollo Amateur Night was a 17-year old singer named Ella Fitzgerald. When Fitzgerald first performed at the Apollo in November of 1934 as part of an Amateur Night, she intended to dance. However, the act right before her was a hot stepping dance duo, so she quickly changed her mind and opted to sing a pair of Hoagey Carmichael songs, “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.” The crowd loved her and she was awarded the $25 grand prize. Fitzgerald soon became a regular performer at the Apollo and went on to become a jazz superstar.

Let’s raise a glass to the Apollo with a cocktail named after the neighborhood it’s located in. Harlem is a pineapple based cocktail that can be found at Schiller’s Liquor Bar in New York. I’ve seen a few mentions online that the Harlem was created at the Cotton Club, but those are at best unconfirmed reports.


  • 3 small pineapple chunks
  • 1/4 ounce Maraschino Liquor
  • 1 and 1/2 ounces Gin
  • 1 ounce pineapple juice

Muddle the pineapple chunks with the maraschino liquor in a mixing glass and then ice, the gin and juice. Shake the mixture and pour it, unstrained, into a rocks glass. Serve with a small stirring rod.

Tomorrow: We go down the rabbit hole.


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