Students in the Program in New York City recently attended Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and the show did not disappoint the first-time Apollo Theater-goers. The experience was instantly engaging as it showcased aspiring entertainers from all walks of life and the crowd was the one deciding their fate. At Amateur Night, the audience votes for who will become the next Apollo Theater legend based on the loudness of their cheers (or boos).
Before attending the show, the group ate at a neighborhood staple, Harlem Shake, where the milkshakes were the main event and definitely no boos were heard.
The significance of Amateur Night can only be appreciated by knowing the history of this competition. Legendary artists including Ella Fitzgerald (won in 1934), Jimmie Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye, The Isley Brothers, Luther Vandross and many more all started their careers in this lively setting.
The history of the theater was embodied by a cutout of a tree stump sitting atop a gold-leaf pillar that was placed on the edge of the stage. This stump is from an elm tree that stood on the sidewalk between the Lafayette Theater – Harlem’s top venue for African American performers in the 1930s – and Connie’s Inn on Seventh Avenue between 131st and 132nd Streets, known as the Boulevard of Dreams.
The Lafayette was the place for aspiring performers, and the tree offered a spot for them to stand for good luck. When the Apollo Theater was founded, they took a cutout of this tree as a good luck charm and remembrance of Harlem’s performing arts history.
Per tradition, every performer touched the tree for good luck before beginning their act. This unassuming, slanting piece of wood is the last thing performers feel before throwing themselves to the mercy of the crowd. After many years the stump was imprinted with history from the sweat, nervousness, and anticipation of human fingers.
This particular night at the Apollo, the NYC Program was able to see a variety of performers including vocalists, dancers, and comedians. Overall, this experience was a fantastic opportunity to experience the artistic culture of Harlem.