Columbia and Apollo Theater Foundation to Create Oral History of the World-Famous Venue

NEW YORK, October 23, 2008 Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office has joined with the Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc. to document and preserve the vibrant history of Harlem’s Apollo Theater and its surrounding neighborhood. The Apollo Theater Oral History Project will feature interviews with performers, personalities and staff, as well as local cultural and political leaders in an effort to spotlight and safeguard one of New York’s most important cultural institutions.


Planned as part of the legendary theater’s upcoming 75th anniversary in 2009, the project will include an oral history archive, an online and on-site exhibition based on the interviews and an educational program for public school students.

“We are thrilled to partner with Columbia University on this project, which is essential to ensuring the legacy of the Apollo for the next 75 years and beyond,” said Jonelle Procope, president and CEO of the Apollo Theater Foundation. “Columbia’s Oral History Research Office and its director, Mary Marshall Clark, have a reputation for being the best in the field and they have shown a remarkable sensitivity to documenting the unique nature of the Apollo, which has been a driving force in America’s music and cultural landscape for so many years.”

Columbia’s Oral History Research Office will produce more than 150 hours of interviews with legendary Apollo performers such as Smokey Robinson, Leslie Uggams and Fred Wesley, among many others. Notable figures in the Harlem community such as former Manhattan borough president and former Apollo owner Percy Sutton, well known disc jockey Hal Jackson and actor Maurice Hines will also be interviewed.

The initial and largest phase of interviewing will be recorded on digital audio, followed by at least 30 digital video interview sessions. Columbia’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning and its Center for Digital Research and Scholarship are contributing video sessions to the project and will develop educational content based upon them. In all, more than 100 interview sessions are planned.

“This is one of the most historically and culturally important partnerships the Oral History Research has undertaken in recent years,” said Mary Marshall Clark. “The Apollo Theater is the living legacy of the Harlem Renaissance — an enduring beacon of hope and vitality in our times.”

The Apollo’s education department is working with elementary school teachers at Harlem’s P.S. 154 to integrate the history of the theater and the neighborhood, as well as elements of African American art, into the school’s curriculum. Based on the Oral History Research Office’s Telling Lives Curriculum Guide, the program of study engages students in their own communities by empowering them to conduct and analyze videotaped oral histories and to use them as the raw materials to create original theatrical productions.

The Apollo Theater Oral History Project is supported by generous contributions from the Edward and Leslye Phillips Family Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and the New York Community Trust.

In the last year, Columbia has developed three other online resources that present African American history that is unique to New York. MAAP, short for Mapping the African-American Past, utilizes interactive mapping software combined with scholarly commentary, historic maps and photos, and other archival documents. The Amistad Digital Resource is a multimedia Web tool developed for teachers and Columbia’s Black History Month Web site spotlights many initiatives and research projects sponsored and developed by the University in recent years.

About the Apollo Theater
Harlem’s Apollo Theater is one of New York’s iconic and enduring cultural institutions. It received national, state and city landmark status in 1983. The Apollo was one of the first theaters in the country to welcome African American, Hispanic and local immigrant populations. The Apollo has been a pioneer in presenting the cultural contributions of black and Latino communities and has played a central role in the development of American music into the 21st century. The Apollo launched and nurtured the careers of countless luminaries including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sara Vaughan, James Brown, Gladys Knight, Michael Jackson and Lauryn Hill.

The Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc., was established as a nonprofit, charitable organization in 1991 and is dedicated to the preservation and development of the Apollo Theater. The foundation brought stability to the theater’s operations and focused its efforts on reinvigorating the Apollo legend. The Apollo has roughly tripled its operating budget, full-time staff, annual audience and weekly programs.

In January, the Apollo announced a series of initiatives leading up to its 75th anniversary season in 2009-10, including an archive of historic documents, photographs, audio and video recordings, artifacts, and other memorabilia and ephemera as part of its ongoing mission of preserving and making available its legacy. In addition to its collaboration with Columbia, the Apollo is also partnering with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Apollo’s mission is to honor the influence and advance the contributions of African American artists and advance emerging creative voices across cultures and artistic media through the Apollo experience of world-class live performances and educational programs. It reigns as one of city’s premiere uptown attractions and is the cultural anchor of the current reinvigoration of the 125th Street corridor. To learn more, visit:

Columbia’s Oral History Research Office is the oldest and largest university-based oral history center and archive open to the public in the world. Founded in 1948 by Pulitzer Prize winning historian Allan Nevins, the oral history collection contains 17,000 hours of taped memoirs and 1,000,000 pages of transcript. The archive is a repository of living memory which reaches back in time to memories of the Draft Riots in New York City. Founded as a collection documenting political and cultural history, the archive contains interviews on almost every aspect of American collective memory and political history with a strong focus on New York City history. The archive is especially noted for its strong collections in New Deal history, the civil rights movements, and the history of the popular arts, philanthropy, medicine and science. The office is also a center for teaching and research, and has recently launched the nation’s first master’s degree program in oral history. It continues to develop the field of oral history through its summer institute, conferences and educational workshops for teachers, community centers and institutions. To learn more, visit:

Columbia University Libraries/Information Services is one of the top five academic research library systems in North America. The collections include over 10 million volumes, over 100,000 journals and serials, as well as extensive electronic resources, manuscripts, rare books, microforms, maps, graphic and audio-visual materials. The services and collections are organized into 25 libraries and various academic technology centers. The Libraries employs more than 550 professional and support staff. The website of the Libraries at is the gateway to its services and resources.

Apollo Theater contacts:
Resnicow Schroeder Associates
Julia Kirchhausen, 212-671-5161,
Christina French Houghton, 212-671-5162,