A night at the Apollo
The next big star could be born tonight, everyone knows it. This stage launched the career of a 16-year-old Ella Fitzgerald and a 9-year-old Michael Jackson, to name a few. So no one, not even the audience, is underdressed. This is tradition. The audience has a role to play, cheering on the best performers and booing those who don’t stack up. It’s probably one of the only venues as famous for its booing as for the exceptional talent. So you’ll be hard-pressed to find any tougher place to perform than at the Apollo Theater.
“You may not realize this but I’m a big star,” Comedian Capone says, puffing his chest. Capone, the host of “Amateur Night at the Apollo,” greets the audience and is welcomed with reserved applause. He’s wearing a light gray suit, and his gold dress shoes catch the purple and blue stage lights as he struts about. “Just because you haven’t heard of me, that ain’t my problem.” Going down his checklist, Capone shares some of his notable credits—Comedy Central, N.Y. Kings of Comedy, Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam and Shaquille O’Neal’s All Star Comedy Jam.
So he asks them to try again, reminding the audience that their energy is what feeds the contestants, and that high energy is a requirement at the Apollo. He enters stage right again, and this time they’re ready for him. They burst into loud applause with a few whistles thrown in for good measure.
But enough of the introductions and stroking his ego. It’s time to see some of the talent, so he lays down the rules. “At the Apollo, we are known to make or break careers,” Capone says. “We only judge by one thing—and that’s talent.” And talent has many facets.
As each contestant walks out, rubbing the Tree of Hope, a good-luck icon since the 1930s, on the way to center stage, the audience is electrified. Throughout the night, the Apollo welcomes child performers, a saxophonist, a rapper and a few singers—the majority of whom sing popular tunes, from classics like Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Loving You” and Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing,” to newer hits like Christina Aguilera’s “Express” from the 2010 film Burlesque.
So when 24-year-old Kevonna Venable walks onstage with her acoustic guitar, wearing a black-and-white striped blouse, an asymmetrical black skirt, black tights and chunky black heels, no one knows what to expect in a theater well-known for its soulful, bluesy performances. She starts finger-picking an unfamiliar melody on her guitar—that’s when the boos begin.
“I heard the boos and thought, ‘What did I do wrong?’” she later recalled. “I definitely didn’t think that I would get booed, and it was definitely a humbling experience.” Luckily, Venable isn’t greeted by The Executioner, C.P. Lacey, who tap-dances onstage and kicks the worst performers off.
Thankfully, when the house band kicks in after the first verse, the audience hops on board, recognizing Frank Ocean’s single, “Thinking About You.”
“It was a gamble,” Venable said. She actually changed her song choice from Beyonce’s “Countdown” a few days before the show. “I like to do things differently, and when you listen to what you usually hear on the Apollo stage, belting-out music, that’s not my style, really I just wanted to stay true to myself.”
“Everybody is really talented, but she persevered,” Kimani Williams said.
Williams, 18, traveled from Connecticut during spring break to catch the show. “I know how amazing of a place it is,” she said. “[It’s] a part of black history. I feel really connected.”
This performance, on March 6, is the first of the “Amateur Night” season that will run weekly through the fall. Venable and her competition aren’t vying just for the spotlight, but a $10,000 cash prize. Contestants participate in a bracket-style competition (similar to American Idol, America’s Got Talent and The Voice) in which the winners will advance to subsequent rounds until a final competition on November 27, 2013. The overall winner will be proclaimed the Super Top Dog and collect the grand prize.
The road to the grand prize starts at open-call auditions held throughout the spring, continuing even after the “Amateur Night” season has begun. Just a few days after Venable’s March performance, about 50 singers, guitarists, dancers, comedians and bands filed into a poorly-lit room with bare walls, yellow-tinted fluorescent lights and uncomfortable black chairs assembled in a corner. The only hint of the theater’s historic importance was a 10-foot-tall photo of the Apollo’s red neon marquee positioned next to the stage. An Apollo employee greeted the group, and he babbled on about how the auditions would go—act like you want to be there, be ready for your turn, have your contestant number visible, give it your all, etc. But the majority of contestants hardly paid attention. Their eyes darted across the room and fixated on the small stage.
Antonette Henry, 25, is a singer-songwriter from Brooklyn by way of Philadelphia. She auditioned at the open call with the 1941 song, “Blues in the Night,” (from a film by the same title) that has been performed by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Amy Winehouse. As she belted it out, her voice reverberated around the room, captivating the judges and the other contestants. The audition judges immediately asked her to come back and sing the same song during “Amateur Night.”
Henry had no doubts she’d do well—she was confident to begin with. “You get nervous right before, but it was a very warm and welcoming environment, so it made it OK,” she said.
She wasn’t the only one of the 300 contestants to stand out. But after dozens of singers, dancers, guitarists, spoken-word performers, rap artists and family bands over the course of a few hours, the performances started to blend together with the same soaring R&B ballads, fiery spoken-word performances and cute-but-off-key child singers. The judges started looking restless, barely making eye contact with the performers after hitting a lunchtime lull. They came out of their trance only for a few strong performers and original acts. So a killer delivery was necessary for anyone wanting to make it onstage.
Damon Rozier made that impression. Rozier wore a black jacket and dark-wash jeans for his audition on March 9. His most notable accessory was his wheelchair, and he wasn’t afraid to work it into his routine.
I need a strong woman in my life—I’m not talking mentally strong, I’m talking physically strong. I need someone to carry me up a flight of steps every now and then.
“I started telling jokes because I had never seen anyone in a wheelchair telling jokes, and that got me angry,” he said. “So to release the anger, I started telling jokes.”
Rozier, 45, has been wheelchair-bound since 1997, when he broke his neck in two places during a motorcycle accident. After the crash he was really depressed, he said, but eventually came to terms with his fate in the best way he knew how—comedy. “I was in a really dark place, and I found comedy, and comedy brought me to a very light place. It has given me a better appreciation for life.”
The Brooklyn native got his first gig in 2003 and has since performed at Improv, the Laugh Factory and Stand-Up New York. This summer he’ll add Apollo “Amateur Night” to his list of credits—and join the ranks of its past comedic performers, including Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, Jackie “Moms” Mabley,Sammy Davis Jr., Chris Rock and Jamie Foxx.
His warm smile and contagious laughter charm his audience as he rolls across the stage performing his material. “When I do comedy, people are inspired, because they don’t expect me to be as funny as I am, being in a wheelchair,” he said. “It’s been a true gift.”
Before stars were born
The Apollo Theater has stood on 125th Street since 1914, when it was originally called Hurtig & Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater, a white-only burlesque house. In the late 1920s, New York City Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia closed down all burlesque theaters across the city because of vulgarity and prostitution rings, Apollo historian Billy Mitchell said. Sidney Cohen, a businessman, bought the building in 1933, and reopened it as the 125th Street Apollo Theatre in 1934, during the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance—important timing for creating its image.
Why was the theater renamed after a Greek god? Well, because Apollo represents the sun, music, poetry and entertainment, Mitchell said. The owners wanted to promote prosperity and creativity with a strong name. And it worked.
After the owners teamed up with African-American actor and Harlem resident Ralph Cooper, the theater found success. In 1934, there was mounting pressure against segregation, so Cohen sought Cooper’s help to gather a pool of new African-American talent worthy of the Apollo name. So Cooper started the first ever “Jazz a la Carte,” a minority talent show, in Harlem on January 26, 1934. “Jazz a la Carte” featured Aida Ward, the Benny Carter Orchestra and Arabella Scott, to name a few. In hopes of drawing a large audience, Cohen announced that ticket sales would benefit the Harlem Children’s Fresh Air Fund, a nonprofit agency that offers outdoor summer activities for children.
During the first show, Mitchell said, the all-white audience was surprised at the level of the talent onstage. At the time, white audiences didn’t know that African-American performers could be as well-trained in the arts as white performers, he explained. “They were so impressed,” Mitchell said. “They were making comments like, ‘Look, look, he’s reading music. I didn’t know they could read music. They’re dancing ballet—how do they know how to do ballet?’ ”
“Jazz a la Carte” was so well received that Cooper was invited to help with another show. Cohen soon learned that his favorite radio show, “The Harlem Amateur Hour Radio Show” on WMCA, was actually hosted by Cooper. As far as this prominent businessman knew, no African-Americans ran any type of radio show. Imitating Cooper in 1934, Mitchell said, “Well, now you do. I’m colored. I’m Ralph, and that’s my show.” So Cohen hired Cooper to develop the first organized talent competition in October 1934. Since then, “Amateur Night at the Apollo” has been a tradition in Harlem every Wednesday night for 79 years.
Still going strong, the Apollo has its own good-luck charm—the Tree of Hope.
The original Tree of Hope stood outside the Harlem Lafayette Theatre (1912-1933), now known as the Williams Institute C.M.E. Baptist Church, between 131st and 132nd Streets along Seventh Avenue. The theatre was wildly popular at the time—featuring tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and jazz performer Duke Ellington, among others—and many believed the tree was symbol of good luck for those who stood beneath it. The stretch of road outside was known as the “Boulevard of Dreams,” because unemployed performers would gather beneath the tree waiting for work, and booking agents would stop by to find fresh talent.
In the 1930s the City of New York widened Seventh Avenue, and the trees along the “Boulevard of Dreams” were cut down. The landmark Tree of Hope was uprooted and sold as firewood or good luck souvenirs. Ralph Cooper bought a piece measuring 18 inches wide by 12 inches tall, and had it sanded, sealed and anchored on a pedestal. Since then, it has stood stage right at every “Amateur Night” show as a good-luck charm for every performer who rubs its smooth surface. And it certainly worked for a young performer who upstaged his big brothers.
Years later, that young performer would become one of the Apollo’s most successful artists—Michael Jackson. Before his death in 2009, Jackson had sold 750 million albums worldwide, and earned 13 Grammys and 26 American Music Awards, according to statisticbrain.com. Mitchell remembers when Jackson first performed during “Amateur Night” with The Jackson 5 in 1967.
“Little Michael, imagine, at 9 years old doing the James Brown dance,” he said. “It was an amazing moment for everyone that was there. I don’t think that anyone knew that they would be as big as they became.” Mitchell added that The Jackson 5 became such big stars that the Apollo soon couldn’t afford to book them.
Even after his death, Jackson is still influencing a new generation of performers—and Mitchell believes Jackson set the bar very high for them, even among his youngest fans.
During “Amateur Night” auditions, there were those who shared their love of Michael Jackson. About a dozen children among the 300 contestants trying out on March 9 wanted to make their idol proud. They ranged about 4 to 13 years old—dressed in tight black pants, a black jacket and white dress shirt (and the occasional black fedora and single white glove combo). They all wanted just two minutes on that stage to perform one of Jackson’s greatest hits while moonwalking and gyrating with the beat accordingly.
“Michael has that effect on different generations, because his music is still played,” Mitchell said. “His music is timeless—Michael Jackson is going to live forever.”
Like Jackson, the Apollo has stood the test of time. Mitchell always boasts that it hosts the original talent show night. “Before there was American Idol, there was ‘Amateur Night at the Apollo,’ ” he said. “ ‘Amateur Night’ is very much a part of American culture. We started this whole way of showcasing the best talent that we have in the United States.”
Although the Apollo’s performances aren’t televised live, the theater uses its own videographers to capture performances and post them on its website and YouTube channel. But to get a sense of a live performance and a classic take on Amateur Night, visitors purchase tickets, ranging from $20 to $43, to become a part of the experience.
Proving that the original will never be irrelevant, even in a televised and digital age, “Amateur Night” is still churning out stars. Richard Colson Baker, 22—better known as rapper Machine Gun Kelly—won the competition in 2009. The theater’s also still booking top talent, including Ruben Studdard, Mary J. Blige and Patti LaBelle.
“Without the Apollo you wouldn’t have black entertainment as we know it,” Will Patterson, a stage-and-door manager at Brooklyn clubs Union Hall and The Bell House, said. “It’s a very important part of history and we should preserve it.”
The performers appreciate becoming a part of that great history.
“It’s always going to be an honor to be a part of other people’s careers onstage,” Venable said, citing that she got to perform on the same stage as her idol, Lauryn Hill. “Whether you win or lose, it won’t break you. Just go out there and be yourself.”
Although Venable’s honesty got her to the next round after the opening-night performance (snagging third place), she didn’t make the cut during her second performance on April 3. She made some last minute changes to Frank Ocean’s single, “Thinking About You,” during sound check that didn’t translate well during the live performance, but she has no regrets.
“I’m all about giving emotion, and I like to see people connect to what I’m doing, so I’m glad I stuck with that song,” Venable said. “The experience in all is something I’ll never forget, and I am beyond honored to have been a part of it.”