Amateur Night History and Legacy
I told them the rules: “If you like the performer, cheer. You know how to cheer, don’t you?” And the audience let out a roar that rattled windows all over Harlem.”
- Ralph Cooper, “Amateur Night at the Apollo”
Ralph Cooper, an actor and producer, started the original Harlem Amateur Hour in April 1933 at Frank Schiffman’s Lafayette Theater. In 1934, Cooper began the Wednesday Amateur Night at Sidney Cohen and Morris Sussman’s 125th Street Apollo Theatre. Cooper’s Amateur Night in Harlem radio shows were broadcast live from the Apollo over WMCA and carried on a national network of 21 stations. When Amateur Night at the Apollo debuted in 1934, it quickly became the leading showcase for many young, talented, new performers such as a 15-year-old Ella Fitzgerald, who went on to become one of the first Amateur Night winners.
Amateur Night at the Apollo celebrated its 75th Anniversary in 2009 as the quintessential talent competition, serving as the model for Star Search and American Idol. Competitions are held nearly every Wednesday evening throughout the year, culminating with the "Super Top Dog" competition. The show marries world-class talent with a distinctive, vaudeville-like atmosphere, and has depended on audience participation since the very beginning. The popularity contest has proven an effective measure of star potential, becoming a launch pad for some of the nation's greatest entertainers.
The ultimate goal is to create a cadre of talented, well-trained and well-groomed performance professionals with an effective understanding of the entertainment industry. The showcase works to nurture aspiring performers in their artistic evolution as entertainers while creating access to professional performance and recording opportunities. Many Amateur Night performers have gone on to perform live opening acts at music concerts for professional artists like Nancy Wilson, George Clinton, Cameo. Others have performed on the Rosie O'Donnell Show, Good Day New York and other local and network television shows.The legendary venue has launched the careers of icons such as Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, James Brown and Lauryn Hill and continues to maintain its position as the nation's most popular arena for emerging and established African-American and Latino performers.
THE TREE OF HOPE
The legend and tradition of The Tree of Hope began outside the famous Harlem Lafayette Theatre once located between 131st and 132nd Streets on Seventh Avenue, known as the Boulevard of Dreams.
The Lafayette was then Harlem's top show biz venue featuring African-American talent. The Lafayette soon became the scene for aspiring actors, dancers and performers to mix, gather and exchange information and gossip. The Tree of Hope stood between the Lafayette Theatre and Connie's Inn and black performers believed the tree to be the purveyor of good luck to those who stood beneath its branches. The tree came to symbolize the promise that Harlem held for millions of aspiring African-Americans.
Around the time that the Apollo Theater first opened in 1934, the City of New York widened Seventh Avenue and the trees that had once lined the Boulevard of Dreams had to be removed. One of the trees doomed to this fate was the famous Harlem landmark, The Tree of Hope. To this day, a large section of the trunk of this very tree stands on the Apollo stage and every Wednesday night, hopeful performers touch the tree in the hope they can share in the good fortune of so many performers in the past.
Stagehand Norman Miller created the character “Porto Rico” for Amateur Night in the 1930s. “Porto Rico” was charged with chasing unsuccessful contestants from the Apollo stage with a hook once audiences had given a vocal “thumbs down” through a loud chorus of “boos.” This role would later be held by Bob Collins and Howard “Sandman” Sims. In the 1980s, Cooper christened C.P. Lacey, who currently performs the role, with the name “the Executioner.”
The tradition of Amateur Night continues every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. from January 26 through October 26, 2011. Click here for the current schedule of shows.