Bobby Schiffman, who guided the Apollo Theater in Harlem through the seismic cultural and musical changes of the 1960s and early ’70s, cementing its place as a world-renowned showcase for Black music and entertainment, died on Sept. 6 at his home in Boynton Beach, Fla. He was 94.
His death was confirmed by his son, Howard.
In 1961, Mr. Schiffman inherited the reins of the storied neoclassical Apollo Theater on West 125th Street in Manhattan from his father, Frank Schiffman. The elder Mr. Schiffman, along with a financial partner, Leo Brecher, had taken over the theater — a former burlesque house that opened in 1914 as a whites-only establishment — in 1935.
Frank Schiffman transformed the theater from a vaudeville house hosting acts like Al Jolson and the Marx Brothers into an epicenter for Black artists performing for largely Black audiences in an era of de facto cultural segregation. During the 1930s and ’40s, the elder Mr. Schiffman provided early exposure to countless African American luminaries, including Count Basie, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington.
Frank Schiffman was respected and feared for his fierce competitiveness. “In Harlem show business circles he was God — a five-foot-nine-inch, white, Jewish, balding, bespectacled deity,” the music writer Ted Fox observed in his 1983 book, “Showtime at the Apollo.”
Bobby, the younger of his two sons, was more affable and easygoing, but lacked none of his father’s drive or ambition.
“I don’t think Bobby Schiffman gets enough credit for being a great impresario,” Mr. Fox said in a phone interview. “Through enormous changes in musical tastes, styles and culture in general, he kept the theater going, doing 31 shows a week, seven days a week, year after year for decades, in a way that no other theater has ever been able to do.”
His father had run the theater along the old vaudeville model, as a venue for variety shows. “Frank was old school,” Howard Schiffman said of his grandfather in a phone interview. “He was like Ed Sullivan. He thought that there should be a juggler and an animal act on every show.”
“My father,” he added, “turned the Apollo into the R&B showcase that it became.”
Faced with keeping the lights on at a compact 1,500-seat theater with little financial cushion, Bobby Schiffman “made it his business to find out what the people in the streets were listening to,” Mr. Fox said.
“He would go into the bars and see what was on the jukebox,” he added, “he would talk to local D.J.s and record store owners to find out what was coming out, and book them while they were still unknown.”
Winners of the theater’s famous and long-running Wednesday Amateur Night during Mr. Schiffman’s tenure included Gladys Knight, Ronnie Spector, Jimi Hendrix and the Jackson 5.
By providing support and exposure, he nurtured young stars “before they became superstars,” Mr. Fox said, “and would later appeal to them to appear, at great financial sacrifice, to come back and play for the people who made them.”
During Mr. Schiffman’s tenure as manager, the Apollo served not only as a launching pad to fame but also, eventually, as a symbol of arrival to generations of performers. “It was the pinnacle,” the Motown star Smokey Robinson once said. “It was the most important theater in the world. Once you could say you had played the Apollo, you could get in any door anywhere.”
The Apollo’s reputation went global, thanks in part to hit live recordings made there by stars like James Brown, an Apollo regular, who recorded the landmark album “‘Live’ at the Apollo” in October 1962. Widely regarded as one of the great live albums, it hit No. 6 on the Billboard chart in 1963 and remained in the Top 10 for 39 weeks.
“For years,” Mr. Schiffman said in a 2014 interview with The Daily News in New York, “you could write ‘Apollo Theater’ on a postcard, drop it into a mailbox anywhere and it would be delivered. How many theaters can you say that about?”
Robert Lee Schiffman was born on Feb. 12, 1929, in Manhattan, the youngest of Frank and Lee Schiffman’s three children.
He grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., a suburb north of the city, where he attended A.B. Davis High School with Dick Clark, the future host of “American Bandstand.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in business from New York University, Mr. Schiffman spent the early 1950s working his way up the ladder at the Apollo. “He did every terrible job in the place, from cleaning bathrooms to taking tickets,” his son said.
During Mr. Schiffman’s heyday at the Apollo in the 1960s, his office functioned as a nerve center for Black culture. Local politicians like Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and sports stars like Muhammad Ali would drop by for a chat.
By the 1970s, however, Harlem was being increasingly buffeted by drugs, crime and economic decline, and the live-music business was changing. With color barriers in music breaking down, the Apollo was unable to maintain its lure for artists who had become arena-packing juggernauts.
“The big stars would say, ‘We love you, Bobby, but we can play the Apollo and sell 1,500 tickets or play Madison Square Garden and sell 18,000,’” Howard Schiffman said.
Mr. Schiffman finally shuttered the theater in 1976. The Apollo reopened under new management in 1978 but closed again the next year. In 1981, the media and technology executive Percy E. Sutton, a former Manhattan borough president, purchased the theater with a group of investors. It was declared a state and city landmark in 1983, and in 1991 it was taken over by the Apollo Theater Foundation, a nonprofit organization.
Mr. Schiffman later oversaw the Westchester Premier Theater in Tarrytown, N.Y., before retiring to Florida.
In addition to his son, from his marriage to Joan Landy, which ended in divorce in 1973, he is survived by his fourth wife, Betsy (Rothman) Schiffman; his stepsons from that marriage, Barry and Michael Rothman; six grandchildren; and two great-grandsons. His marriages to Renee Levy and Rusty Donner also ended in divorce.
While the Apollo became famous for its stars and spectacle, Mr. Schiffman never forgot its unique role as a locus for Harlem life.
“We were in the business of pleasing the Black community,” he said in an interview for the book “Showtime at the Apollo.” “If white folks came as an ancillary benefit, that was fine. But the basic motto was to bring the people of the community entertainment they wanted at a price they could afford to pay.”
When he overstepped his bounds, the community let him know. “The highest price I ever charged was six dollars,” Mr. Schiffman added. “I tried seven for Redd Foxx once, and they stayed away in droves.”