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Supporters raising money to restore Apollo Theater

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NEW YORK — Back in the Apollo Theater’s heyday, audience members walked through an ornate, spacious lobby. Inside the theater, hand-painted detailing decorated the walls. And on the stage, stars were born.

Supporters have long tried to restore the Harlem landmark to those golden days of the 1930s and ’40s, when unknown teenagers Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan launched their careers at the theater’s “Amateur Night.”

Now, after years of struggling to finance an expansion and restoration, theater officials are beginning a national fundraising effort for what they are calling the “final phase” of the renovation.

The $47 million project calls for doubling the size of the theater lobby, building a grand staircase at its center and replacing its wall-mounted columns and marble wainscoting. Work inside the theater would include repainting the colorful, intricate patterns on the walls and restoring box seats.

Under the Apollo Theater Foundation’s plan, the names of musical legends would be memorialized on bronze plaques in a walk of fame in front of the venue. A revamped third-floor performance space would be placed in front of the building’s windows, allowing passersby a peek inside.

The foundation also aims to raise $12 million for an endowment.

The nonprofit organization already has spent $37 million to replace the theater’s seats and stage and restore its famous marquee, said Jonelle Procope, the foundation president.

Architect Christopher Cowan said his firm was basing its restoration on the Apollo of the mid-1930s, when the whites-only theater was opened to blacks. The theater was built in 1914.

“In a way, you’ll be stepping back in time to experience the Apollo in its heyday,” Cowan said. “That’s the period of cultural significance for the Apollo. It became a center for jazz. It had amazing performers.”

The foundation plans to raise cash for the project through appeals in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington and New York.

“The Apollo has been the venue in which so much of American culture has been created and demonstrated to the world,” said Dick Parsons, chairman of Time Warner Inc. and the theater’s board of directors. “We still want it to be a place where stars are born and legends are made and culture is disseminated.”

Planners say they expect the project to be completed by the end of 2010.

(Associated Press)