It would take a book, or several thousand of them, to hip readers to the colorful history and the social importance of the iconic Apollo Theater in Harlem. From a “whites-only” burlesque house in the early part of the 20th century, to the cultural capital of America’s R&B, soul, and hip-hop movements 100 years later, the raucous ride at the Apollo has never been smooth, but it’s always been exciting.
Amateur Night has been part of the Apollo’s lineup for more than eight decades, and was the basis for the hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls. Ella Fitzgerald took the crown in 1934 and 30 years later, Jimi Hendrix did. James Brown recorded his greatest album live there. The Temptations and Smokey Robinson debuted there in 1962, causing a calamitous and appreciative uproar with their new Motown sound, under the production of Berry Gordy.
A memorial for Michael Jackson was held there in 2009, honoring the King of Pop, who, at the age of nine with The Jackson Five, also took first place at Amateur Night in 1967.
And for those of us who would stay up past “Saturday Night Live” in the 1980s and ’90s, there was “Showtime at the Apollo,” with performers as electrifying and diverse as Hall & Oates, Whoopi Goldberg, Lauryn Hill, Kurtis Blow, Patti LaBelle — the list went on and on. “Showtime” continues with Steve Harvey as its host to this day.
But like all great old theaters, especially one that is not only a New York City Landmark but on the National Register of Historic Places, an enormous amount of attention must be paid not only to the edifice itself, but in keeping the programs that it produces lively and engaging, along with the educational outreach and all the other hundreds of moving parts.
Enter Apollo’s vice chairman Ronald Perelman, who happens to be good buddies with Jon Bon Jovi, and Apollo in the Hamptons was born — a super-exclusive, one-night fundraiser, this year on Saturday, August 11, which has, since its inception in 2009, raised approximately $20 million. The funds have been funneled into the non-profit Harlem hotspot, supporting the artistic, educational, and outreach programs, and continuing to provide a cultural anchor worthy of its legacy.
The private dinner and concert at Perelman’s The Creeks in East Hampton are the stuff that dreams are made on. Imagine an intimate music event featuring performers like Jennifer Lopez, Justin Timberlake, Usher, Bon Jovi, and Lionel Richie — all past performers. This year’s line-up includes Sting and Shaggy, the two one-name wonders currently touring together, Alice Smith Jr., some special guest stars as yet to be divulged, and all with the best house band imaginable, The Roots.
Other benefactors at the heart of Apollo in the Hamptons include Apollo Board Chairman Dick Parsons and Chairman and CEO of the Kraft Group and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
Top Shelf Performers
At the heart of the benefit, besides the tony surroundings and top-shelf performers, is a love of sustaining the culture and education that the Apollo provides. Apollo education programs are offered to nearly 4000 New York City students, many from underserved backgrounds, giving them unique opportunities for career development, mentorship, and exposure to high-quality arts programs in their community.
“This year’s Apollo in the Hamptons is a tribute to the soul and extraordinary musical history of the legendary Apollo Theater,” said Ronald O. Perelman.
“Support for the arts and community education is more important than ever, and I am so proud to continue to support this iconic and vital cultural institution. The Apollo’s programs provide young people the inspiration, experience, and training that help them succeed. Without our support, these incredible programs would be in danger or could disappear entirely,” Perelman said.
Jonelle Procope, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Apollo Theater, spoke with The Independent about how this particular event supports the Harlem cultural flagship. “Apollo in the Hamptons has enabled the organization to significantly grow its education, artistic, and community programs. The Apollo now serves more than 200,000 people annually — doubling those served since the event began,” she said.
“It also impacts 20,000 students with its inspiring and innovative educational programs, including our Apollo Theater Academy, our School Time Live shows, and our Young Producers Club.” She added that she, and everyone at the Apollo, are “very grateful to Mr. Perelman for generously hosting this event for the last eight years, and for all of his extraordinary support of the organization.”
Procope projected the Apollo’s 2019 budget at about $14.6 million, “and Apollo in the Hamptons will make a significant contribution to that budget.”
The Story Of Moses
Stepping away from generalities, Procope shared the story of one young man named Moses.
“A flagship Apollo education program is the high school internship program, which trains youth for careers in arts administration, technical theater, and entertainment technology,” she began, “creating a pipeline of diverse candidates for the field and leveling the playing field for greater equity tomorrow. The Apollo Theater has seen our young people succeed in college and then go on to work across the arts and entertainment field or just go right into the job market.”
Moses grew up in Section 8 housing in New York City “and never felt he belonged anywhere until he came to the Apollo,” Procope continued. “The Apollo’s high school internship program offered him training and experience in technical theater — opening his eyes to careers he never knew existed. When he finished his internship, he was able to parlay his experience and get a job with a production company doing gigs at places like Madison Square Garden. Moses is now a part of the Apollo family, a member of Apollo’s internship alumni group, and the Young Producers Club, passing along what he has learned to younger students and continuing to hone his skills,” she said.
While music is always at its core, the Apollo’s programming extends to dance, theater, spoken word, and more. This includes a recent international tour of the dance celebration project “James Brown: Get on the Good Foot,” the annual Africa Now! Festival, and the recent New York premiere of the lyric opera Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD, with a libretto by Bridgette Wimberley and music by Daniel Schnyder.
And the world-famous Amateur Night continues, billed as “the best fun you can have in this town for under $30.” Winners of each night can advance toward a big-time payout at the event’s November finale — $5000 for child performers, and $20,000 for adults.
Famed musician and Amagansett resident G.E. Smith recalled the Apollo with fondness. “The Apollo Theater, in the heart of Harlem on 125th Street, has always been the testing ground and the pinnacle of black performers in NYC,” he said. “In 1985, I was lucky enough to play there with Daryl Hall and John Oates, at the re-opening of the Apollo after its refurbishment. It was a great honor to play with David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks of The Temptations at such a special event.”
Apollo was the Greek god of the sun, but also of music and poetry. If it’s anything like its namesake, the Apollo will continue to shine brightly, providing a place of culture and education for all.