“It’s not about just the building, it’s about a preservation of a cultural legacy.” JONELLE PROCOPE
ANY list of New York City landmarks — the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park — would include, near the top, the Apollo Theater. But unlike those icons, the Apollo has escaped ruin by the skin of its teeth, thanks in large part to Jonelle Procope, the chief executive of the foundation that runs the theater. Tens of millions have been spent restoring parts of the theater in the past five years, but there is still much work to do.
In January, Ms. Procope and Richard D. Parsons, the chairman of the Apollo Theater Foundation and chairman of Time Warner, announced a $96 million plan to complete the renovation and expand the Apollo.
So far, about $51.5 million has been raised, and public appeals are planned for the rest. If all goes well, the theater will close for nine months in 2010 for the construction work.
“This is strategic,” she said. “We’re looking at: What is this theater going to be in 2011 when it reopens? We want it to be one of the premier performance venues uptown. It’s not about just the building, it’s about a preservation of a cultural legacy.”
The renovation will add 4,000 square feet of space by moving offices to other buildings. With fewer than 1,500 seats, the Apollo could never compete with bigger houses with 6,000 to 8,000 seats. But the new plans will allow the theater to run more educational and community programs. In the 1990s, it seemed that the Apollo, where, in 1962, James Brown performed one of the most thrilling concerts of all time, might vanish from sullen recriminations and physical rot.
The building needed millions of dollars in repairs, including the replacement of miles of electrical wiring. And a lawsuit filed by the state attorney general over finances at the Apollo, which is state-owned, threw its oversight into turmoil.
Some of the most prominent names in Harlem and black America — Representative Charles B. Rangel; Percy E. Sutton, the former Manhattan borough president; the actor Ossie Davis; Mr. Parsons — struggled and clashed over the Apollo.
With the theater’s future uncertain, Mr. Parsons turned to Ms. Procope, who was a member of the board, and asked her to run the precarious institution. Ms. Procope, a corporate lawyer, didn’t seem to want the job.
When Mr. Parsons offered her the Apollo presidency over breakfast in March 2003, she told him that she would need to think about it, for a week. “I remember going home and being totally freaked out,” Ms. Procope, 57, said. “I remember sitting in board meetings and thinking, Wow, I’m glad I’m not running this.”
Ms. Procope consulted with her husband, Frederick O. Terrell, the head of a private equity firm in Manhattan, and her half-brother, John L. Procope, a former publisher of The Amsterdam News who died in 2005. And she consulted with Paula Ramsey, director of development at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.
One thing that worried Ms. Procope was fund-raising — the art of coaxing money from donors. “People think it’s some mystical, magical charm,” said Ms. Ramsey, “but it’s really based on relationships and Jonelle is good at that.”
When Ms. Procope accepted the job in April 2003, attention focused on her résumé: an undergraduate degree from Howard University; a law degree from St. John’s; experience at a big law firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; work at major companies like Viacom and Bristol-Myers Squibb and at creative ones like Blackground Records.
But what especially prepared her for the Apollo, Ms. Procope said, were less prominent jobs that she took between lawyering and maternity leaves (she has two sons, 17 and 20).
She once worked at Equitable Real Estate Group, where she was an aide to the chairman and helped raise money for the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, in Morningside Heights. “I liked the project,” she said. “I liked having to reach out to people, make the case, make the pitch.”
Gently strong-arming donors in Manhattan was a long way from Philadelphia, where Ms. Procope grew up. Her mother, Corinne, was a homemaker originally from New Orleans. Her father, John L. Procope Sr., originally from St. Kitts, was a businessman and eventually the administrator of Mercy-Douglass Hospital, a racially segregated black hospital in Philadelphia.
NEARLY every summer, Jonelle (pronounced “John L.”) lived in Harlem with John Jr., her father’s son from a previous marriage, who would become the newspaper publisher. As a young girl, Jonelle met everyone who was anyone in Harlem through her half-brother, including David N. Dinkins, later mayor of New York; Basil A. Paterson, father of the current governor, David A. Paterson; and Mr. Rangel (in college, she was an intern at his Congressional office).
Mr. Rangel was forced out as chairman of the foundation in 1999 after Eliot Spitzer, then the attorney general, agreed to drop a lawsuit charging that Mr. Rangel and the board failed to collect more than $4 million owed to the theater by a company controlled by Mr. Sutton. Mr. Rangel and Mr. Sutton denied any wrongdoing. Mr. Rangel was succeeded by Mr. Davis.
Ms. Procope still meets with Mr. Sutton, who bought the shuttered theater in the 1980s, reopened it and turned it over to the foundation in 1992. “He made this possible,” she said. “I stand on his shoulders. I want him to feel proud.”
But now, with the economy faltering by the day, donors are sure to be skittish. “I know,” Ms. Procope said quietly. “But I can’t stop. I can’t decide that all this is not going to work. Next year, if we haven’t made our goal, we’ll deal with it. But I can’t stop.”
Photo by Chester Higgins Jr. and story by ANTHONY RAMIREZ The New York Times