The Apollo’s inaugural show Friday, January 26, 1934, was billed as “Jazz a la Carte” and featured Harlem showman Ralph Cooper, Aida Ward, Benny Carter and his Orchestra, sixteen “Gorgeous Hot Steppers,” the Three Rhythm Kings, Norton and Margot, Troy Brown, Mabel Scott, and the Three Palmer Brothers. The film feature was Criminal at Large. All the proceeds of the opening-night performance went to the Harlem Children’s Fresh Air Fund. As if the lavish show and clever charity pitch were not enough, Cohen and his manager, Morris Sussman, invited representatives of various New York and out-of-town black newspapers to schmooze and “crack a quart of whiskey” at the Renaissance Casino.
In every way the Apollo Theater was a vital part of the Harlem community. Since 125th Street was Harlem’s main commercial artery, the merchants greatly depended on the Apollo to draw crowds to the street and generate traffic in their stores. A hot show at the Apollo meant money in the bank for everyone on 125th Street.
Local legend has it that theater owner
Frank Schiffman was personally responsible for breaking down the color barrier that existed in many of the stores and restaurants on 125th Street well into the 1940s. As the story goes, he and black film producer Oscar Micheaux went into Frank’s Restaurant, a well-known Greek-run steak house, and ordered two steaks. When Micheaux’s came smothered with pepper, Schiffman exchanged dishes with him, ordered another, and told the waiter if he ever tried that again, he’d have a hell of a fight on his hands. Soon after, blacks began working and eating there, and segregated policies elsewhere on the street slowly began to change.
The Schiffmans supported a host of organizations such as the NAACP, CORE, the Urban League, SNCC, the local YM and YWCA, and many others, and Frank Schiffman was one of the founders of the Freedom National Bank. A letter of appreciation from Martin Luther King, Jr., proudly hung in the Apollo office. The theater was always available for special benefit shows, and the Apollo hosted dozens of them, including a 1971 benefit for the families of the Attica dead, when John Lennon finally realized his wish and appeared on the Apollo stage, along with his wife, Yoko.
The Schiffmans made a conscious effort to make the Apollo a part of the community. “I want them to feel bad when a performer gives us the shaft,” Bobby Schiffman has said. “I want them to feel bad when the roof leaks. I want them to feel bad when we can’t get a first-run film…” They did feel bad when the Apollo had troubles. But more often they had reason to feel good. For years the theater was billed as “Harlem’s High Spot”—and that it was.