The owner of New York's Apollo Theater, Harlem's historic showcase for black entertainers such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, filed a petition for bankruptcy yesterday in Manhattan.

Elmer T. Morris, owner of the Apollo, filed under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Act, which enables the company to continue operation but seeks court protection against creditor lawsuits while it tries to pay off its debts.

The 1,500-seat Apollo is considered an institution in the Harlem community. A family business for 32 years, it rose from modest beginnings in 1936 a world acclaim in the 1960s. The Apollo suffered as the neighborhood around it deteriorated, however, and in 1976 the sons of the original owners shut down for two years. It reopened in May 1978.

Morris stated in an affidavit filed with the petition that the landmark theater's financial problems have been caused by inflation in maintenance costs, commissioning talent and repeated threats by the IRS to attach the box office receipts. The affidavit also states the Apollo is unable to pay its mortgage because of a serious cash-flow problem.

Morris said he intends to seek financial help and embark on an aggressive talent-booking program to revive the theater.