When you live in a city like New York with a million things to do and people to see on any given night and you are away a lot, sometimes it’s easy to not do certain things or let them slip through the cracks. For many years I had always meant to go to the Apollo Theater for amateur night on 125th Street in Harlem but I always found one reason or another not to go. Truthfully, I generally don’t go north of 14th Street unless absolutely necessary as I am definitely a “downtown guy” as Billy Joel once sang. However, last night I finally went to opening night on the 77th birthday of the world famous Apollo Theater and it was an amazing time.
The Apollo Theater claims that it is where stars are born and legends are made. I suppose it’s hard to argue that claim because the Apollo has launched the careers of such performers as James Brown, Michael Jackson, Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye and many others. Amateur night is something of a local Harlem love where amateurs and even some professionals get up on stage in front of a sold out crowd and try their luck and talents in any variety of performance types. The audience decides who wins by the loudness of their applause. However, the audience can also boo the performers right off the stage which apparently happens quite a bit-at least it did last night.
Many of the performers were vocalists, some did stomp dances and some did spoken word poems. If you get booed off stage there is a guy who comes out and dances around like a clown dressed up like James Brown or Sammy Davis Jr. and they play some razzing music as the performers are kicked off stage. It’s kind of similar to the Globe Theater in London without the tomatoes being thrown at the performers but funnier.
There are also different age levels of the competition starting with kids aged 5-15 and you are not allowed to boo them. It’s not that you’d want to boo children who have the guts to get up there but that is the rule. All the kids who performed last night were excellent. Some of the adults however, were not so good. The winner gets a $10,000 first prize and the winner last night was a surprise. As the shows host said, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
I say this because the only white and final performer of the night was a female vocalist and she belted out some amazing tunes and won the approval of a very tough audience. When she first took the stage, the mostly black audience looked unsure but she then crushed it and won everybody over. The runners up were also excellent and any way you slice it, you have to admire the guts of these people to get up on that stage, putting themselves out there for the wolves and pushing through.
The best part of the show for me was when the host pulls four different kinds of people from the audience to essentially go up on stage and break it down. Meaning, they play some music and the person has to dance their ass off in front of everyone. Last night they pulled up a cute young woman from Japan, a chubby old white guy from Australia, a woman with a monster afro from Connecticut and a black woman dressed to the nines in some shiny dress whose birthday it was last night.
The competition was absolutely hilarious and everyone did pretty well. The woman with the afro and the older man were funny but the birthday girl and the Japanese girl stole the show. They were both amazing. The birthday girl in her tight shiny dress started going nuts doing some kind of stomp dances that the audience loved to Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison”. However, the Japanese girl got “Crazy in Love” by Beyonce played and she seriously went bonkers. She was break dancing, getting really into it and the crowd totally went insane for this little Japanese woman. She ended up winning and I can imagine will have a story to go back to Japan with to tell for the rest of her life.
They also had Stephanie Mills play a few songs who is considered an Apollo legend. She won amateur night some 6 times back in the 70’s and then starred on Broadway and had some hit singles, winning a Grammy and even dated Michael Jackson (I didn’t know all that, in fact I had never even heard of her, but I looked it up when I got home).
After the show we headed over to the Red Rooster restaurant on Lenox Avenue for an excellent soul food dinner and then braved the brutal snowstorm we had here in New York last night to get home. What a great time I had and would go back to amateur night anytime. I highly recommend next time you are in New York to head uptown and check out the Apollo Theater. It really is an institution and is one of those really New York things to do. I am glad after growing up less than an hour from the city and having lived in Manhattan for the last 11 years I finally made it. As the host of the show said “What took you so long?!”