The Harlem Opera House opened in 1889, by Oscar Hammerstein I, his first New York theater. It was designed by architect John B. McElfatrick, who designed numerous late-19th century theaters around the country. Many of the stars of the day performed on its stage during its early years included Edwin Booth, Lillian Russell and Sophie Tucker.
The Harlem Opera House and other entertainment venues were built by early entrepreneurs who had grandiose schemes for Harlem to meet the entertainment needs of the growing community after reconstruction and in anticipation of elevated railroads, which were extended to Harlem in 1880. Hammerstein I’s, Opera House was located at 211 West 125th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues and on the same stretch of the Victoria Theatre (still in it’s same locale) and the Hurtig & Seamon’s Music Hall (renamed the Apollo Theatre). At that time the pavement on 125th Street was still cobblestone and had a small country house to the right of the majestic structure.
By 1893, even row houses did not suffice to meet the growing population, and large scale apartment buildings were the norm. In that year, Harlem Monthly Magazine wrote that “it is evident to the most superficial observer that the centre of fashion, wealth, culture, and intelligence, must, in the near future, be found in the ancient and honorable village of Harlem.”
This is the interior very early in the life of this theater. By 1917, the block would be home to three of the biggest and most important theaters in Harlem. Built to hold just over 1500 patrons, the theater used both gas and that new invention electricity for lighting.
By 1922 it was taken over by Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher, who previously operated the LaFayette Theatre on 135th Street, who eventually took over the Apollo Theater once the owner, Sidney Cohen, passed away. It was Sidney Cohen who saw the future of 125th Street and eliminated segregation policies but it was Schiffman and Brecher who got the world famous Amatuer Nights under way.