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Columbia, Apollo team for oral history

University to help safeguard 'cultural institution'

Harlem’s Apollo Theater is partnering with Columbia U. to create an oral history of the storied venue at a time when Harlem residents have expressed concern that the surrounding neighborhood’s solidarity is being threatened… by the expansion of Columbia U.

The project, described as “an effort to spotlight and safeguard one of New York’s most important cultural institutions,” is planned for the theater’s 75th anniversary in 2009 and will include online and on-site exhibitions, an educational program for public school students and an archive of audio and video interviews with Apollo performers such as Smokey Robinson, Leslie Uggams and Fred Wesley.

Columbia has announced plans to expand uptown from its 120th Street borders, building $6.3 billion worth of new facilities between W. 125th Street (just west of the Apollo) and W. 134th over the next 25 years. Local residents have agitated about the inevitable uptick in prices, and individual businesses have been hurried out of the 17-acre area, which the Empire State Development Corp. declared blighted in July, making way for the expansion. Columbia prexy Lee Bollinger has stated his intent to keep the community involved in the process, and the university estimates that the new campus will create some 6,000 new jobs in the area.

The Apollo Theater is perhaps the oldest and best-known institution in the historically African-American neighborhood. It hosts premieres of movies like the upcoming “Soul Men,” performances like “Showtime at the Apollo” and shows by performers from k.d. lang to Tracy Morgan. Over the years, the theater has launched the careers of singers from Ella Fitzgerald to Lauryn Hill.

Partnering to create the oral history of the venue are the Apollo Theater Foundation and Columbia’s Oral History Research Office, which specializes in preserving historical interviews in recording and transcript form. The university’s oral history collection already includes some 17,000 hours of taped memoirs and 1 million pages of transcript.

“This is one of the most historically and culturally important partnerships the Oral History Research Office has undertaken in recent years,” said COHR director Mary Marshall Clark. “The Apollo Theater is the living legacy of the Harlem Renaissance.”