Giving thousands of mourners a place to congregate in the days after Mr. Jackson’s death—and turning its famed Amateur Night into a tribute to the King of Pop—the historic onetime vaudeville house on West 125th Street reminded the world of its once-central role in popular culture and its hopes to become more relevant now.
But behind its new, electronic marquee and restored facade, the Apollo is still struggling to live up to its potential. Socked by the economic downturn, the nonprofit Apollo Theater Foundation, which operates the legendary venue, has taken a step back from its ambitious plans, postponing its capital campaign and putting the restoration of the theater’s lobby on hold.
Plans to move administrative offices into neighboring buildings and create more room for rehearsals and performances have also been delayed, as those development projects seek new financing.
And the foundation can’t say when work on the building will resume.
“We have the plan,” says Jonelle Procope, chief executive of the foundation. “We’re ready, willing and able. But we have to be pragmatic.”
Key role in black culture
In its 75 years, the Apollo has played a key role in African-American cultural life, helping to launch countless careers, including those of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, James Brown—and Mr. Jackson. But ever since the theater was bought out of bankruptcy by Percy Sutton’s Inner City Broadcasting Co. in the early 1980s and sold to the state in 1991, the story of the Apollo has been about a revival that never quite takes hold.
Following a period of upheaval in the 1990s, when the foundation was sued by the state for financial mismanagement, the theater seemed poised for explosive growth. In 2001, new board chairman Richard Parsons (ex-Time Warner, CEO. In addition, Time Warner is said to own the Apollo’s soft assets) wanted to join the Apollo with the nearby Victoria Theater and create an arts complex.
That plan fell apart following an economic downturn in 2002, and the Apollo lowered its sights to completing the restoration. Through a spokesman, Mr. Parsons referred questions to Ms. Procope.
So far, the Apollo Theater Foundation has raised $54 million of a planned $96 million. Suspending the capital campaign was the right move, supporters say. “That clears the deck for them to focus on other activities to sustain the organization,” says Maurine Knighton, a senior vice president at the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone.
Apart from the capital campaign, Apollo officials say, the theater is doing well and is continuing with fundraising at the grassroots level. Last month’s 75th anniversary gala brought in $1.3 million. A government agency has just provided nearly $2 million to increase programming, marketing and staffing. Since 2001, the theater’s operating budget has tripled to $9 million. Earned revenue grew by 32% in fiscal 2008 over the prior year.
Right now, the focus is on expanding the programming and finding ways to build on the Apollo brand outside the theater. The foundation recently appointed a staffer to work on licensing and other cooperative ventures.
“We are looking at strategies that would allow us to tap into the equity of the brand,” Ms. Procope says.
Additional revenue streams are necessary since the Apollo has only 1,526 seats. It’s too small to compete with venues like the Beacon Theater and Radio City Music Hall for major acts.
Musical theater is the future
Though some big-name artists make pilgrimages to the Apollo—John Legend recently devoted one night of a tour to an appearance there—Ms. Procope sees more of a future in musical theater. Dreamgirls will launch its national tour at the Apollo in November, marking the theater’s first foray into this kind of programming.
The Apollo may also open a music café for lesser-known artists in its third-floor soundstage next year—something it had been planning to do when renovation plans called for the main theater to be closed in 2010.
Ms. Procope is still hopeful that neighboring developments will eventually get under way and allow the Apollo to expand its footprint. But that may have to wait until there’s a recovery strong enough to reach into Harlem.
“When the nation catches cold, we get pneumonia,” says Curtis Archer, president of the Harlem Community Development Corp., a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corp. “Everything is on a slower track.”