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Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater Launches Great Stars: "It's Showtime..."

Updated on May 21, 2012

Lauryn Hill, at 13, Barely Escapes Elimination

Stage Appearances at the Apollo that Led to Fame

Some of the most renowned African American entertainers have had their careers catapulted by an appearance on Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater. At the very least, a win there would make a performer one of the hottest topics in Harlem years ago. But for some brilliant performers it meant huge success. They brought their talent to the stage for sure, but this venue, now located at 253 W. 125th St. New York, NY 10027 played a part in their success also. Some of these people include Sarah Vaughn, Frankie Lyman, Joe Tex, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Gladys Night, Dionne Warwick, and Pearl Bailey. You can just imagine that this happened much like you have seen many amateurs in modern times on the TV program "Showtime at the Apollo," including the now famous Lauryn Hill. They would perform their song or dance numbers with all their heart, or a comedy routine with the best jokes to carry the audience in laughter. Some just wanted to do their thing artistically. Others really wanted to make it in show business.

James Brown Returns to Apollo for Tribute

Before Fame Each of These Great Singers Graced Apollo 's Stage

Exhibit Reminds Us of Stars from Apollo's Past

Well history tells us who made it, even if it doesn't always tell us who didn't. There was a wonderful exhibit at the Museum of City of the New York in February 2011 that featured the history of the Apollo. That was good for my sister and me, since we had been very disappointed to learn that we would not be able to catch an amateur night because we were visiting NYC from Friday through Monday, but amateur nights were held only on Wednesdays. The museum exhibit would have to do for now, I thought. But we actually thoroughly enjoyed it and learned quite a bit there. We saw original costumes and memorabilia from some of the iconic performers. There were interactive video clips from live shows at the theater. Even preserved records showing how much certain performers were paid by the owners of the Apollo were on display that detailed what they thought of each act.

In the past, a success on Amateur Night at the Apollo could translate into a week of shows there, a long-term engagement there or elsewhere, a television appearance, or even a record deal! You see many scouts would frequent the Apollo in hopes of finding new talent. So if you had this chance to perform there, it was your time to shine!


Sarah Vaughn Earlier Made Her Debut at the Apollo

Prize Money and Possible Star Status

Today's hopefuls realize that this is still a time to bring it in hopes of winning $10,000 grand prize or, more important, a shot at stardom. As noted above, the Apollo theater continues to feature amateur nights on Wednesdays. For one hour, the audience at the Apollo could be anything from thrilled to unimpressed by various talents trying to make it, to break into show business. Lauryn Hill was one of these hopefuls. See the YouTube video below of a young Lauryn Hill at age 13, who barely escapes elimination. With the booing audience and all, she gets to the end of her performance. Of course, as many know, she made it with the Fugees with Wyclef Jean, and even a solo career with a 5-time grammy winning debut album, Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Her story is not unique. There are many others who have had their careers skyrocketed by an appearance at the Apollo.

The Apollo now has a kids segment Apollo Kids, and no longer are children booed. You might say the Apollo audience is now kid-friendlier, and children are just given supportive cheers for their talent.

There were so many great performers at their amateur nights, but there was no YouTube then. Many of these performers would return to the Apollo after they became famous. So here is one of those clips with James Brown for your enjoyment, plus a few others not taken from there, but just presented here so you can hear and see the sounds and styles of these late musicians who appeared there too.

Former Apollo Amateur Night Winner Joe Tex

As you may know, many other stars did what it took, not only to win at the Apollo as an amateur, but to win over its tough audiences. The live audiences played a great role in whether a talent would win or bite the dust! That's because if a performer bombed out, then the audience would verbally shout and boo the performer and, with the help of a costumed stagehand, they would be chased off the stage! This tradition lives on. At the end of all acts, those remaining would be brought back to the stage. As a host placed her hand over each one's head, the audience would respond with cheers and applause for their favorite. Simply, the loudest cheers and applause was sounded for the winner! No judges were needed like the familiar TV show American Idol. The audience was judge, jury, and oftentimes executioner wielding a swift exit for a failing performer! So you can see that the audience has a huge part in whether an act rises to stardom or not at the Apollo.


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    • Cassidella profile image

      Cassidella 6 years ago

      Thanks Suzie. Didn't realize just how many famous people got their start at the Apollo theater until I started researching for this hub. Glad you enjoyed it!

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 6 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Loved this Hub. So many greats had their start there as you point out in the article. Enjoyed the read and the videos. Thanks - rated up!