The Apollo Theater’s weekly Amateur Night has been an evolving part of Harlem’s culture for the past 85 years.
“There aren’t many things left in New York City you can say that about,” says Marion J. Caffey, producer of the talent showcase at the theater “where stars are born and legends are made.”
The Apollo enters its 85th anniversary year hoping to appeal to new fans with a celebratory events lineup, new Amateur Night set design and plans for its first physical expansion since 1934.
“We still see ourselves as a home of black contemporary culture,” says Kamilah Forbes, the venue’s executive producer. “We want to make sure, especially moving forward, the Apollo is that place in which culture makers are creating, building, dreaming.”
Family-friendly events like the upcoming one-man historical play, “Twisted Melodies,” and recent ads branding the Apollo as “the best fun you can have in NYC” look to bring in younger fans and tourists. But, it’s not the first time the theater, once a haven for locals, has set out to attract new audiences.
A storied past
Sitting in the mezzanine of the 105-year-old theater, Caffey looks out at the stage where aspiring performers have stood most Wednesday nights for decades. Some of the legends who’ve graced it include James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and a 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald.
“She didn’t want to sing,” Caffey says of Fitzgerald’s first Amateur Night performance on Nov. 21, 1934. She put her name in the night’s talent drawing on a dare “and wanted to dance, but when her name was drawn, the performer before her had already danced, so she had to do something else.”
More recently discovered at the theater is Machine Gun Kelly, who became the first rapper to win Amateur Night in 2009.
The Apollo first introduced its open-mic talent show in 1934. The hourslong show was open to anyone — performers simply entered their names in a drawing to take the stage.
The audience “would throw money on the stage, but that doesn’t happen anymore,” Caffey says.
At a time when African-American artists were not welcome in NYC’s other performance venues, the Apollo’s Amateur Night served as an incubator for the growth of soul, R&B, jazz and gospel music in the city.
Amateur Night was already 75 years old when Caffey was tapped to help keep the tradition alive. “There’s a lot of pressure coming into something that’s lasted so many years,” he says, laughing.
When he came on board in 2008, the Apollo was still recovering from a period of financial turmoil. Between 1988 and 1991, the venue recorded a loss of $2 million per year, according to The New York Times. It underwent an interior and exterior restoration 10 years later, which reportedly helped increase sales from 115,000 to 400,000 ticket holders annually.
But it wasn’t enough. Amateur Night was still struggling.
The Apollo couldn’t compare with the city’s larger venues — hosting popular artists — and the production of Amateur Night itself lacked structure and branding appeal. As a New Jersey resident with more than 20 years of Broadway experience, Caffey was tasked with drawing in a new audience.
Spreading “Apollo love”
Facing a gentrifying Harlem, the Apollo needed to look beyond locals to stay afloat, which translated to a still-evolving overhaul of the talent-show tradition.
Acts once picked night-of are now prescreened during private auditions led by Caffey; the program settles neatly into a predictable 90- to 120-minute time slot; and marketing strategies set out to target tourists and brand the show as an iconic “New York night out.” Amateur Night has a new stage design, as well as improved lighting and technical production.
“We tell tourists to go visit the Empire State Building … why not the historic Apollo?” He says. “This is the original talent competition. There’s a reason it’s been replicated on television” in shows like “American Idol,” “The Voice,” and even Fox’s rebooted “Showtime at the Apollo.”
The Amateur Night audience, once primarily African-American, is now as diverse as a walk through midtown. Most ticket holders, Caffey says, come from out of state or even the country, resulting in a mix of cultures working together to pick the city’s next rising star.
The night now begins with the “Apollo love” movement, led by “Set It Off Man” Joe Gray, who encourages those of different ethnic backgrounds to hold hands and “spread love.”
“In this moment, there are no white people, no black people, no Asian, no Christian, we are all one human race,” Caffey says. “For 10 seconds,” he continues, “we let down all the politics and it’s become a really special moment in the show.”
But Amateur Night is still a little rough around the edges. It’s known best for its “power of the boo,” which Caffey says often surprises tourists who aren’t familiar with the tradition.
Amid a growing Amateur Night production, the theater is also planning to open up a new performance space. Steps away from the Apollo, the former Victoria Theater is set to become the new Apollo Performing Arts Center in 2020.
“When we look toward the future, we’re looking to push the vision of a performing arts center,” says Forbes, adding that the Apollo expansion will help to create “the next producers and designers of color of tomorrow.”