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

Thursday, 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, 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.

In the last year, Columbia has developed three other online resources that present African American history 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.

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.

—By Columbia News