Red Lobster has joined other corporate entities such as Duane Reade, Rite Aid, The Gap and Modell’s in the vicinity of the Apollo Theater.
You needn’t set one foot inside today’s Apollo Theater to see how radically the world has changed since its heyday.
Surrounding the venue’s storied walls stand outlets for Rite Aid, Duane Reade and, as of two months ago, Red Lobster, right next door. Across the street sits Foot Locker, Old Navy, Modell’s, The Gap and Capital One Bank. That longstanding collection of local street merchants — dubbed Mart 125 — lost their space in 2003. Gone also are most of the brick-and-mortar mom-and-pop stores of old.
Amid this conformist context, the Apollo may look like a beacon of individuality and community connection. But even so rooted an establishment can’t avoid reflecting the massive changes that have taken place in the world outside.
No longer does the Apollo function primarily as a place where African-American culture measures its latest achievements, or launches its greatest innovations. It’s not the same place where James Brown recorded what would become one of the most popular live albums of all time (the 1963 “Live at the Apollo”). Or the one where a young Jimi Hendrix took first prize on an Amateur Night in 1964.
Today, the Apollo more often functions as a place for looking back rather than for moving ahead. It’s a shrine, a place we marvel over and pay homage to.
True, you can still find some up-and-coming performers of note there — like, this month, the promising young, roots-oriented singer Martha Redbone, or a solid showcase for emerging African artists. But more often the Apollo’s calendar devotes itself to tribute shows that gaze lovingly into the rearview mirror.
Highlights for 2014 include a show, and movie, celebrating the legacy of salsa goddess Celia Cruz, or the revue “Harlem Club Apollo,” which salutes music, dance and art made famous by the theater 70 or 80 years ago.
These days, the Apollo has been getting the most attention as a place where music’s top names go to get extra cred. In the last few years, SiriusXM satellite radio has sponsored headline-making shows here for Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney and, last September, Metallica — an act that probably takes less influence from African-American music as any that ever played there before. (First runner up: Morrissey.)
This doesn’t make the Apollo a sellout. Nor does it take anything away from its ongoing value as a cultural resource. But it does little to push the hall forward, to make it as much a bellwether as a museum.