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Frank Schiffman made the Apollo Theater into the premier venue for African American musicians

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The Apollo Theater in the 1950s.(Eric Schwab/AFP/Getty Images)

Harlem’s Apollo Theater was once a whites-only burlesque house, until the city shut down the circuit in 1934. That’s when Frank Schiffman, a promoter specializing in what was then called “race music,” bought the place. He recruited young talents like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, James Brown, and Billie Holiday—many of whom got their start at the Apollo’s famous “Amateur Night,” at which only those who received the audience’s approval were invited back to perform. Schiffman was a businessman, who reportedly refused to book Apollo performers who played competing venues. But he—and, later, his son, Bobby—provided African American musical acts a respectable venue from which to launch their careers. As the Apollo celebrates its 75th anniversary with an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, reporter Eric Molinsky considers the theater’s founding father. [Running time: 11:32.]

 

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Arne Abramowitz says:

Who knew?
Enjoyable and informative.
Well done.
Whats Bobby Shiffman doing now?

Arne Abramowitz says:

Are the Shiffman’s mentioned in the exhibit and are his notes part of the Apollo archives?

Amy S Langer says:

The Smithsonian’s Apollo Theater Collection was established by my father, Jack Schiffman, and Bobby Schiffman, my uncle. Bobby is retired and lives in the Palm Beach, FL area; my father passed away last year (Mr. Abromowitz knew him well). I am now in the process of gathering and organizing the Apollo-related notes, memorabilia and reference books from Dad’s home that will be donated, to further expand the Smithsonian’s collection.

My family was related by marriage to the Schiffmans and I remember as a boy going to hear Billie Holiday at the Apollo! Also, I believe Louis Armstrong. Frank Schiffman was a kind, soft spoken man who deserves to be honored. Amy, I remember you and your parents well and am sad to hear of your Dad’s death. There was a time when we were quite close. Hope you’re well. Best.
Steve Rittenberg
ritt123135@mac.com

I knew your father vaguely but I knew Mr. Frank Schiffman
and his son Bobby, You see I was 1 of the neighborhood children
who was in the Apollo everyday when it was affordable, and when I could not afford it Mr. Schiffman senior would pass myself and a few friendsd
in and buy candy at the candy stand in the lobby Those were the days
until 5 years I had ticket stubs fron the late 50′s through the 1970′s
Boy do I have stories to tell. I glad to hear that Bobby has retired
I was in some kind of partnership at Univeral Attraction w/ Jack Bart
wasn’t he. The best to your family. The Apollo was a tradition in
my family as well
feesa@juno.com

Author’s Query: For a book involving the Columbia College rock and roll group Sha Na Na and their translations and “covers” of Apollo Theater performance arts (it was a short walk down the hill from Morningside Heights– Columbia students were regular visitors) what would this obviously expert audience recommend my reading about the Apollo in the 1960s? I’m particularly interested in information about the gospel shows I used to attend, when performers like the Rev James Cleveland stood in the doorway on the way out and shook hands with exiting audience members as if they were a congregation.

Sorry, forgot to give my email: GL@georgeleonard.com

This is a fascinating history but one correction is needed in the written introduction.

Ellington was a famous band leader with dozens of hit records long before his orchestra appeared at the Appollo for two week-long engagements in late 1934. His was an active touring band, and by this time had already made several Hollywood films, including Black and Tan, Check and Double Check, and Murder at the Vanities.

It is incorrect to imply, by including him in a list of future stars who got their start at the Appollo, that he also started out there.

Julie Subrin says:

Thanks for your comment, David. I think, in saying “many of whom got their start…,” that it’s clear that not all of the musicians we’ve listed got their start there. But I appreciate your point that Ellington’s distinguished career was well underway before he ever set foot on the Apollo stage.

Brian says:

I was just at the Apollo Theater last week. Was on a walking tour of Harlem and our tour guide knew the people at the Apollo so we were given a quick look inside the theater and on the stage. Got to rub the Tree of Hope, and look at the wall backstage, which all of the famous performers over the years signed. Very cool!

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lkt says:

Bobby continued to have wonderful talent of all kinds and races at the westchester premier theatre in new york. He and billie had closed circuit fights, classical music, rock n soul. I have to say he was a powerhouse n a decent boss to work with!

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Frank Schiffman made the Apollo Theater into the premier venue for African American musicians

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