The Lafayette Theater And Harlem’s Tree Of Hope

The Lafayette Theatre

The Lafayette Theatre, also known as “the House Beautiful,” was an entertainment venue located at 132nd Street and 7th Avenue in Harlem, New York. It was the first New York theater to desegregate, as early as 1912. Here, African-American theatergoers were allowed to sit in orchestra seats instead of the balcony, to which they were relegated in other New York theaters. The Lafayette Players, the resident stock company, played before almost exclusively African-American audiences both in plays from white theater repertory and in the classics. The theater seated 2,000 and presented such Broadway hits as Madame X and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. From 1916-1919, the theatre was managed by Quality Amusement. Robert Levy, the owner of this entertainment company, drew large audiences of both blacks and whites with his sophisticated productions and groundbreaking work with black actors.

The Lafayette Theatre reached the height of its fame with the “Voodoo Macbeth“, a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, arranged and staged by Orson Welles that ran from 14 April to 20 June 1936. This show had an all African-American Cast. It was a production of the Federal Theatre Project which was part of the Works Project Administration. The overture was by James P. Johnson and such notable actors as Canada Lee and Rose McClendon were part of the program. This production came to be known as the “Voodoo Macbeth” because of the various African elements employed in it. In place of the theater is a church today.

Management changed several times and the theater was eventually turned into a vaudeville house; later it became a movie theater and finally a church (as it exists today).

The Tree of Hope

Nestled between the Lafayette Theatre and the popular nightclub Connie’s Inn, a tall [elm] tree was rumored to bring good luck to all who touched it between 131street ans 132nd Streets on Seventh Avenue known as Boulevard of dreams.

During the Harlem Renaissance, aspiring performers such as Ethel Waters, Fletcher Henderson, and Eubie Blake were rumored to have visited the Tree of Hope.

When the tree was cut down in 1934 during the expansion of 7th Avenue, it was cut into logs and sold as souvenirs. One section was salvaged and found a home at the Apollo Theater, where today’s amateur performers continue to rub the trunk in the tradition of their predecessors.

In 1941, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson joined New York Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia in a formal ceremony to rededicate the stump of the original tree.”

Around the time that the Apollo Theater first opened in 1934, the City of New York widened Seventh Avenue and the trees that had once lined the Boulevard of Dreams had to be removed. One of the trees doomed to this fate was the famous Harlem landmark, The Tree of Hope.

The tree was cut up as firewood and pieces were also sold as good-luck souvenirs. Ralph Cooper Sr. bought a piece of the tree that measured eighteen inches across and sat about a foot high. He took it back to the Apollo and had it sitting in his dressing room. Just before the first Amateur Night at the Apollo show began, he asked one of the stagehands to sand and shellac the log and to mount it on an iconic column. The column pedestal was placed stage right, just outside the curtain so the audiences could see it.

Now, touching The Tree of Hope has become recognized as the famed Apollo ceremonial act carried out by all Amateur Night performers before they compete. Rooted between a glorious past and an even greater future, the Tree of Hope links generations of performers together in an unbroken tradition of chance, desire and success.

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