The History of the Apollo Theater

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While it shares no connection with New York City’s Apollo Theatre, The Apollo Theater in Chicago has an interesting history all its own.

Built in the heart of Lincoln Park in 1978 by theater producers Jason Brett and Stuart Oken, and just renovated for the third time, the Apollo boasts a dramatic glass and concrete design conceived by Chicagoan Michael Lustig. Its three-quarter thrust stage has 440 plush seats configured in just eleven rows, allowing audiences a theatrical experience unparalleled in intimacy and accessibility.

The Apollo Theater has a rich theatrical history. For its inaugural engagement, producers Oken and Brett chose Albert Innaurato’s Gemini, which featured the production’s original Broadway director, Peter Schifter. David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago became a smash hit at the Apollo, starring Jim Belushi in his dramatic stage debut and directed by former Second City Artistic Director Sheldon Patinkin.

David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago became a smash hit at the Apollo, starring Jim Belushi in his dramatic stage debut

The Apollo’s second season brought Clifford Odet’s 1930s American classic, Waiting for Lefty, also directed by Patinkin. Subsequently, Stephen Wade’s Banjo Dancing established a trend of long-running hits at the Apollo. Other long-running productions of the 1980s included Harry Chapin: Lies and Legends, Steel Magnolias, and Pump Boys and Dinettes, which set a Chicago longevity record for a musical by running five years. (A record since broken by the Apollo’s current long-running hit, Million Dollar Quartet.)

The Apollo Theater also became home to many plays produced by the acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre Company, including Balm in Gilead with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, Cloud Nine, Secret Rapture, Harvey, Wrong Turn at Lungfish, and Sam Shepard’s True West.

In 1991, Michael Leavitt and Fox Theatricals took over operation of the Apollo and brought stars John Astin and Jamie Farr for Lend Me a Tenor. Other productions included Cole Porter, No Regrets, Edward Albee’s Pulitzer prize-winning drama Three Tall Women, the musical comedy Forbidden Hollywood, and the one-man show 20th Century Man, starring Ray Davies of the Kinks.

In 1996, producer Rob Kolson took over the Apollo. Since then, the theater’s track record for acclaimed hits has remained unblemished. The Apollo hosted two phenomenally popular musicals, Always…Patsy Cline and Buddy…The Buddy Holly Story, followed by Robert Dubac’s long-running one-man show The Male Intellect: an oxymoron?

Other highlights: If You Ever Leave Me, I’m Going With You, written by and starring Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna, the world premiere of Hinton Battle: Largely Live, the Jeff-recommended production of Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!, and Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple (Female Version) starring Barbara Eden and Rita McKenzie.

On September 26, 2000, the critically-acclaimed hit The Vagina Monologues made its Midwest premiere here with author Eve Ensler starring for a limited run. The Vagina Monologues then continued with an array of renowned local and national stars, including Loretta Swit, Kim Fields, Mayim Bialik, Dawn Wells, Judy Tenuta, Maureen McCormick, Amy Morton and Rondi Reed. The show enjoyed a nearly three-year run, becoming the fastest-selling show in the history of the Apollo.

On July 25, 2003, the smash hit Menopause the Musical made its Chicago debut at the Apollo, entertaining nearly a quarter of a million people in its three and a half year run.

During the summer of 2005, a smaller, second stage was added to the Apollo Theater, in what was formerly the Act One bookstore. The 50-seat Apollo Theater Studio has quickly become one of the most sought after venues for comedy, sketch, upstart theater companies, and improv. In 2006, the popular sketch group Baby Wants Candy moved their improvised musical to the Apollo Studio for an open-ended run after nine successful years at IO. Other artists and groups have included Comedian/Political Satirist Aaron Freeman, Tracy Egan, WNEP and Rubicon Theaters, Triplette, Grandma June’s Sewing Circle, Sketchcore, and many more.

The Apollo is also home to the Emerald City Theatre, Chicago’s largest children’s theater company dedicated solely to families. Emerald City Theatre  draws nearly 50,000 patrons annually and has been called “Chicago’s most innovative theater for families” by the Chicago Sun‑Times.

On October 31, 2008, the phenomenal hit musical Million Dollar Quartet made its home on the Apollo’s main stage, where its long historic run will finally come to a close January 17, 2016, after over 2,500 performance.