Apollo Theater to undergo renovation under new leadership


Hans Joachim Dudeck | Wikimedia Commons

Ethan Del Rosario 

Harlem’s Apollo Theater will undergo a major renovation and expand for the first time in its history. The news of the theater’s restoration coincided with the announcement that longtime president and CEO Jonelle Procope will step down from her role.

The historic building was designed by George Keister and first opened its doors in 1914, according to the theater’s website. It played a major role in the emergence of the likes of jazz, swing, bebop, R&B, gospel, blues and soul.

Benjamin Hurtig and Harry Seamon obtained a thirty-year lease when the theater first opened and renamed it “Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater.” American theaters during this time did not allow Black-Americans to attend as viewers or performers.

In 1933, Fiorello La Guardia began a campaign against burlesque, eventually leading to the closure of this and other theaters. Sidney Cohen, who would become the first owner of the theater, would reopen the building a year later along with his partner, Morris Sussman, who would be manager.

The pair redirected their vision for “125th Street Apollo,” changing the format of shows from burlesque to variety revues. The growing Black-American community in Harlem was their main influence for this marketing strategy.

Apollo Theater will undergo major renovations and restoration for more “versatility,” according to its website. It means expanding the theater into an operational performing arts center and improvements including upgrading public areas and audience comfort

Future audiences will get to enjoy an expanded lobby with a newly designed cafe and bar. For performers, it will improve their accommodations. A restoration of a built-in orchestra pit is to be expected. An enhanced soundstage for performances and audio systems to bring a richer experience for artists and audiences. There will be added and upgraded seating in the theater as well.

The renovation was made possible via a $70 million capital campaign, according to Patch. Of that amount,  $63 million had already been raised and other funding came from grants from New York State, City Council and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

The theater renovation will start in the spring of 2024, closing for six months and aims to reopen a year later. In the meantime, the Soundstage and the Apollo’s Victoria Theater will be open for business.

Procope has served the theater since 2003. She joined the Apollo board in 1999, became president and CEO in 2003 and will step down from her post at the end of June 2023.

“It’s been 20 years, and I naturally began to think about the right time for me to step down,” Procope told Gothamist. “And I feel the Apollo is in a very strong position after continued growth and achievements. I think all the pieces are in place for the future.”

Under her leadership, Procope transformed the theater into a premier performance venue for Black musicians, comedians and a famous Double Dutch competition.

“We had a storied history, but the theater had really fallen into disrepair, and didn’t have a clear and strong vision for moving forward,” Procope said. “So I focused with the board and a wonderful team of people on the crucial role the Apollo had to play in being a center for Black creativity, a civic thought leader, and a convener for public discourse through the arts.”