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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

On Amateur Night, the spotlight can singe

NEW YORK -- If you happen to find yourself in New York on a Wednesday night without a plan, saunter on over to the subway and take the A train. Less than 15 minutes from Midtown, emerge at 125th Street in Harlem. Or just tell any cabbie you want to go to the Apollo.

Wednesday at 7:30 is Amateur Night at the Apollo, a storied spectacle at this storied venue that dates -- in its incarnation as the epicenter of black music, dance, and comedy -- to 1934. Before that, the theater had been a burlesque and vaudeville house for two decades, when 125th Street was still a strip of white-owned and -operated businesses catering to white customers, a strip through the middle of a neighborhood that was receiving wave upon wave of African-American migrants from the South.

The Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of black culture that spawned some of the signature works of 20th-century American arts, was in full swing when a change in management and policies transformed this rather ordinary stage into one of the country's most exciting places to behold a performance. The lore around the demanding, astute, boisterous, even cruel audiences is as enduring as the litany of fabled names that took the mike. ''Humble pie served Apollo style" is central to the message on the current brochure.

Today, the Apollo is in the midst of a yet another incarnation that began when New York State bought the building in 1991 and a few years later turned it over to a nonprofit organization. Dawn Frisby Byers, vice president of marketing and communications for the theater, said renovations and a schedule are still in the works, but the continued success of amateur night is key to the plan.

Part of the Apollo's identity stems from its glory days, when legions of aspiring performers, some of whom became superstars, mingled with established luminaries to tempt fate by submitting themselves to the vagaries of the audience. The rest of its identity is grounded in a commitment to providing those who pass through its doors with a rollicking good time.

That included my 15-year-old son, Josh, and me on a recent Wednesday night.

The doors opened at 6:30. The Apollo's lobby, which has been likened to a bowling alley, is long and thin. Off to the side is a long set of stairs leading to the second balcony, known as the Buzzards' Roost; a shorter stairway goes to the first balcony. Each level has a full wet bar. Here's a tip: If full-throated appreciation or equally loud contempt for the talent on stage is what you wish to experience, consider opting for the cheap seats. Amateur Night is all about the interplay between the performers and the audience, and the Buzzards' Roost is famous for making up for the distance to the stage with the volume of its verdict.

The lobby offers a mini history lesson on the renown surrounding the Apollo. Its trademark, ''Where stars are born and legends are made," is backed up with a roster of household names. Sixteen-year-old Ella Fitzgerald made a last-minute decision to feature her voice rather than her dance moves when she was intimidated by the competition one long ago Amateur Night. No surprise she stole the show.

When a little-known group called the Jackson Brothers, featuring a boy singer named Michael, came to New York, they were already known in Detroit. That didn't help them get the downtown gig they wanted, however, so they headed up to Harlem and wowed the Amateur Night audience. Billy Mitchell, now in charge of group sales at the Apollo, was in the audience celebrating his high school graduation that night. It was 1969. The Jackson Brothers sang ''Who's Loving You" by Smokey Robinson.

''They were introduced by Gladys Knight," recalls Mitchell, ''and after they won the Amateur Night, they got a deal with Motown and changed to the Jackson Five."

Pearl Bailey, Sarah Vaughan, and Dionne Warwick were Amateur Night winners. Others who made their mark at the Apollo include Flip Wilson, Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis Jr., and James Brown.

Throughout the Apollo's history, the entertainers have been predominantly, but not exclusively, black. They were drawn to this relatively small theater (1,470 seats) so they could reach an audience that for many years did not feel welcome in other parts of the city. The Apollo fell on hard times in the 1970s, though, and went dark for a decade when the competition from larger venues grew too intense. After struggling to find its bearings, under the current board, headed by Dick Parsons, Time Warner chairman and chief executive officer, the Apollo is part of a larger effort to revive Harlem's economy and image.

''The Apollo is an economic driver," said Frisby Byers. ''It drives people up to Harlem." As importantly, ''we want to continue to be a showcase for amateur talent. It is still a very viable showcase for talent."

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the formula has won high praise indeed.

'' 'Star Search' and 'American Idol' are modeled on the amateur road to stardom," Frisby Byers said. ''It all started here."

Part of the magic at the Apollo has always been the racial diversity in the audience. The night we were there, the first three rows were still empty when the lights dimmed. Just as the master of ceremonies was getting warmed up, a busload of middle-aged whites from Philadelphia trooped in, prompting the emcee to proclaim to general laughter, ''This is unusual. It's the white people who are late this time."

As it happened, they were the cheering section for the first act, Chrissy Wacker, 12, who sang ''The Phantom of the Opera." Mom and Dad were front and center. ''As I watched the show, I was wearing dual hats," Bruce Wacker said later. ''I'm her father and her number one fan. I liked how people responded to her, it was a great experience, and I enjoyed the show as a whole. They have a good little thing going on there."

Chrissy was part of the child performer segment at the beginning of Amateur Night. No booing is allowed, only cheering. The other competitor, Oba Bonner, who high-pitched his way through Michael Jackson's ''I'll Be There," won the ecstatic praise of the teenage girls in several school groups. Since volume is everything in determining the winner, he captured that part of the evening.

The rest of the show consisted of six acts: three male vocalists, a female singer, a steel drum band, and a teen hip-hop dance group. Interspersed among them was the running comedic commentary of Kid Capri, the self-proclaimed ''world's greatest DJ," and the antics of C.P. Lacey, otherwise known as The Executioner, whose clowning included the task of escorting the heckled off the stage. His costumes morphed during the evening from the Grim Reaper to a British bobby with a billy club.

At the end, all the performers returned to the stage to face the audience's judgment. One by one, they were rated by the crowd. The female vocalist, Aluna Allen, was the obvious favorite. Then each performer or group was presented for second-place honors. The steel band had flagged a bit during its performance, but whenever that happened, the lead drummer came to the fore to do some tap dancing and gymnastic flips. That seemed enough to win the crowd's approval for first runner-up.

Based on the cheers it provoked, the hip-hop dance troupe, Pulse, seemed a shoo-in for third place. But when the cheer balloting commenced, one of the male vocalists, whose stage presence was self-effacing almost to the point of shyness, elicited a cacophony of yelling and hollering that visibly surprised him as much as it did Kid Capri and large swaths of the amateur connoisseurs.

As we headed for the doors, I chatted with Mervin Jackson, a teacher accompanying a senior trip from Warren Easton High School in New Orleans. They had studied African-American history all year, including the migrations to the North and the Harlem Renaissance. This was his fifth year bringing students to the Apollo. Jackson confirmed my suspicion that his charges had huddled before the last vote and decided to see if by putting some coordinated juice into their wild shouts they could throw the competition to the retiring young crooner.

''They decided that this guy should win, so they decided to put their energy into him," Jackson said.

And so Terrelle Tipton, along with the second- and first-place winners, will be invited for another night on the Apollo stage. Every fourth week or so, winners return for an encore appearance. Every third month, one night is reserved for two-time winners, or ''top dogs." The last Wednesday of the year is the final face-off, during which three-time winners duel for the accolade of ''super top dog."

The audience hasn't changed much over the years, according to Mitchell.

''The only difference is we are getting a lot more foreigners," he said. But the relationship between audience and performer is exactly the same, he said.

''If you don't like them, you boo them off, you get them the hell off the stage. And if you like them, you give them some love."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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