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Columbia Spectator Staff

When Maria Davis was diagnosed with AIDS in 1998—an illness that had already taken the lives of many in her Harlem neighborhood—she sought a remedy beyond the parameters of medical care at a venue where she could express her pain to others: the Apollo Theater.

"I tell everyone, if I can survive, you can survive, too, as long as you have a culture around you to support you," Davis said. "For me, that culture is the Apollo Theater."

The Apollo Theater has a long history as a community sanctuary. Since its founding in 1913, the theater has been a hotbed for cultural expression and a source of pride for the surrounding community. Its walls have resonated with the music of many of the great African-American musicians over the last 70 years, including Bessie Smith, Nat "King" Cole, James Brown, and the Jackson 5. Though rezoning negotiations threaten to alter the face of 125th Street, Columbia University's Oral History Research Office and the Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc. have recently joined together to preserve the theater's history through the creation of the Apollo Theater Oral History Project.

The project—planned to begin in December as part of the Apollo's 75th anniversary celebration—will feature about 40 audio interviews and 30 video interviews with performers, audience members, political leaders, and locals selected to discuss the theater's significance in their lives. The more than 150 hours of recorded interviews will be made accessible to the public Jan. 1, 2011.

"We invite those that we'll interview to go back in time and recall their earliest involvement at the Apollo, to really dig into the deepest parts of their memory," Columbia's Oral History Research Office Director Mary Marshall Clark said.

In addition to preserving the theater's legacy, the archive will also be an important resource for students looking to see Harlem through the eyes of locals.

Mark Phillipson, senior program specialist at the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, explained that the recordings will help students gain a greater understanding of the area," drive educational activities into the community, and have what goes on in the community feed immediate study."

One professor participating in the development of the project is English and Comparative Literature Professor Robert O'Meally. The founder and former director of Columbia's Center for Jazz Studies, O'Meally has been deeply involved since the project's planning first began, participating in discussions regarding who and what the interviews should focus on.

"What's important is that the Apollo is not Carnegie Hall," O'Meally said. "Unlike at Carnegie, in the Apollo, you had to get up and dance. The audience played such a crucial role in keeping the standards tremendously high. And that is important—the community insisted that its music was as good as it could possibly be."

In addition to the audio and video recordings, a documentary of the theater's history and an exhibition featuring its memorabilia will also be open to the public.

"It's really something special that Columbia and the Apollo are doing this together," Harlem resident Frank Greene said. "This place brings back memories from when I came here as a child. Without the Apollo, a part of the past would be erased that I would never be able to get back."

The project does not mark the beginning of the relationship between Columbia and the Apollo. Two years ago, Columbia's Oral History Research Department and the Apollo's education department worked in collaboration with Harlem's P.S. 154 to integrate the theater's history and its neighborhood into the school's curriculum. Last year, a program was launched in which fifth graders met with a group of Harlem residents called "Significant Elders" and interviewed them about their experiences at the theater.

Director of Education Shirley Taylor said she hopes the program will make a lasting impression on the students and "will have a positive impact on shaping who they become as contributors to society."

"At the Apollo, we believe that we sit on this incredible treasure of American culture, and that there have been so many individuals who have made this theater so important to world culture," added Vice President of Programming Laura Greer. "We're hoping that this project will clarify the reasons why this has been such an important theater and that it will remain important for future generations."