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Under new lights, it's showtime at the Apollo

For decades, the Apollo Theater was a citadel for black entertainers and a proving ground for up-and-coming stars.

Sammy Davis Jr. strolled out, stared at the audience, and lost his voice. The Jackson family appeared on Amateur Night and became superstars. And then, after years of neglect, the theater went dark.

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Now the 90-year-old Harlem, N.Y., theater is about to undergo a bold renovation and expansion to turn it into a major cultural and performing-arts center. In the next few years, theater managers plan to spend $250 million to transform the former burlesque hall into a high-tech multiplex, complete with clothing store, restaurant, and recording studio.

"We have a chance to be much more than a music hall," says Derek Johnson, president of the Apollo Theater Foundation. "We want to show the world just how hard we are working to reclaim the stature [of the Apollo]."

This summer, "Harlem Song," a new musical from George C. Wolf, will debut at the Apollo – the first extended engagement in the theater's 88-year history.

The play, which chronicles life in 20th-century Harlem through song and dance, is an ensemble production written and directed by Mr. Wolfe, who directed the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Topdog/Underdog." He also won a Tony in 1996 for "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk." BJ Crosby, Tony-nominated best actress for "Smokey Joe's Cafe" in 1995, stars.

Meanwhile, the first phase of the initial $50 million in renovations is under way, starting with external repairs. The Apollo's famous marquee is being restored with as much of its original material as possible. Marble and granite work from the 1920s, discovered under the exterior paint, will be restored, as well as the theater's terra-cotta detail. Internal renovations include: installing digital lighting, a new sound system, new carpets and seats, and new dressing rooms.

Leading the restoration effort are the New York architectural firms Davis Brody Bond, which restored the New York Public Library, and Beyer Blinder Belle, which directed the rehabilitation of Grand Central Station.

The rowdy Amateur Nights, a hallmark of the Apollo, will go on a 35-city tour, including stops in Tokyo and London, during the restoration.

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Johnson, a former AOL Time Warner executive who last year took over as chairman of the Apollo foundation, says he will use Apollo's rich history to rebuild its image as a major entertainment venue. He says he wants to attract key events like the Grammy Awards, and wants to host talk shows, political debates, and town-hall meetings.

But some Harlem residents fear that the renovation will price out local retailers and residents. They don't want it to become the "AOL Time Warner Apollo," says Anthony Bowman of the Harlem Association for Travel and Tourism.