By Walter Rutledge
Before there was American Idol, America’s Got Talent or So You It You Can Dance there was the original talent showcase- Apollo Amateur Night. Since introducing the first Amateur Night contest in 1934 the Apollo Theater has played a major role in launching the careers of some of the world’s most recognized and renowned artists. On Wednesday May 23 the Apollo Theater continued this legacy when it presented Amateur Night: Apollo Goes to London Semifinals. The event is part of a new partnership with London’s Hackney Empire Theater for the first transatlantic Amateur Night competition.
The competition is set to coincide with the 2012 Summer Olympics, which will also be held in London.
Three aspiring singers from the May 23 Apollo competition have be chosen to compete in the June 8 Live at the Empire in London. The qualifying round titled Live at the Empire and Apollo Amateur Night: Hackney vs. Harlem (grand finale) will take place on July 14. The American audience will have the opportunity to hear the grand finale winners perform in Harlem at a special Amateur Night at the Apollo on September 19.
The evening lived up to expectation with an outstanding group of contestants. In the end it was Nicole Vanessa Ortiz’s rendition of the power ballad I Will Always Love You that won over the Apollo’s audience. Matthew Hashimoto placed second performing Someone Like You, and Cyrille Aimee singing I’m Beginning to See the Light was the third place winner. The group reflects the Apollo tradition and belief that true talent is truly colorblind.
This was not always the case, even in the world greatest cultural melting pot- New York City and even in the village of Harlem. Before 1910 Harlem was predominantly a Caucasian community, African-Americans began migrating north to escape the increased harsh enforcement of Jim Crow Laws in the south. As African-Americans moved to Harlem the Germans, Irish and small population of Jewish residence began to move out.
In 1914 Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater opened at 253 West 125th Street. It was operated by noted burlesque producers Jules Hurtig and Harry Seamon, who obtained a 30-year lease. The end of World War I sparked the second northern migration of African-Americans and began an era that would become known as the Harlem Renaissance. Although Harlem was becoming the enclave for Black culture many of the local institutions, nightclubs, and theaters did not allow Black patrons including the New Burlesque Theater. The Lafayette Theater was one of the first to allow Black audiences, but while Caucasian patron paid five cents admission Blacks had to pay ten cents.
In 1934 the New Burlesque Theater changed management. It was renamed the Apollo Theater and allowed Black patrons for the first time. That same year the Apollo began the Apollo Amateur Night. One of the first winners was a 17 year-old dancer who decided instead to sing A Tisket, A Tasket; her name was Ella Fitzgerald and the rest is history.
This new partnership with London’s Hackney Empire continues the Apollo’s commitment to present the best and the brightest talent. Now in its seventy-eight year the Apollo has become a New York landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. To the world it will always remain the place “Where stars are born and legends are made.”
In Photo: 1) Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Matthew Hashimoto and Cyrille Aimee 2) Nicole Vanessa Ortiz 3) Ortiz, Hashimoto, Aimee 4) Lafayette Theater 5) Apollo Theater
Photo Credit: 1-3) Shahar Azran