Harlem’s Apollo Theater to Create Oral History

NEW YORK  _ Columbia University and the Apollo Theater Foundation plan to create an oral history of the famed Harlem theater that launched the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and other music legends.

The Apollo Theater Oral History Project will feature interviews with performers as well as cultural figures and politicians who helped make Harlem one of the nation’s most vibrant communities.

Planned as part of the landmark theater’s 75th anniversary in 2009, the project is scheduled to be completed in 2010 and will include an online component. The audio and video archive will be housed at Columbia and open to the public a year later.

“We want to document the Apollo’s legacy and its place in American popular culture and African-American history and music,” said foundation president Jonelle Procope. “It allows us to begin talking to a range of people who were connected to the Apollo and its history.”

Among the 30 to 40 people who will be interviewed for the project are Leslie Uggams, Fred Wesley and Robinson.

Uggams, a Broadway and TV actress and singer, won a Tony Award in 1968 for best actress in a musical for “Hallelujah, Baby!” She just finished an off-Broadway run in “First Breeze of Summer.”

Procope said Uggams began performing at the Apollo at age 8 and grew up in the theater. “She can talk about what it was like behind the scenes and who else was there,” Procope said.

Robinson, lead singer of the Miracles in the 1960s and 1970s with such hits as “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and “The Tears of a Clown,” was inducted into the Apollo Legends Hall of Fame this year. His early performances there showed “you had to be at the top of your game,” Procope said.

Wesley performed at the Apollo as recently as May. The jazz and funk trombonist is known for transforming the music of James Brown and the Count Basie Orchestra, and arranging for such artists as Ray Charles and Lionel Hampton.

The Apollo is “the living legacy of the Harlem Renaissance — an enduring beacon of hope and vitality in our times,” said Mary Marshall Clark, director of Columbia’s Oral History Research Office, which will produce the project with the foundation. The project will include an educational program for public school children.

Earlier this year, the Apollo launched the creation of an archive of historic documents, photographs and other memorabilia.

The Apollo for many years struggled financially amid rumors of sweetheart deals and dubious bookkeeping. In 1991, the Apollo Theater Foundation was founded to operate the theater, which is owned by the state. A $96 million capital campaign to renovate and expand the theater is under way.

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