Dionysian at the Apollo

apollo

The noise, building from the back rows of the Apollo Theater, was something like a cross between the rumble of an approaching tsunami and the massed growl of a pack of hungry carnivores. It was the sound fallen gladiators must have heard from the back rows of the Colosseum, just before they got the thumbs-down. It was, in short, the sound of the audience at the weekly Amateur Night competition, booing a performer who had just slipped up.

It didn’t take much to get the people booing. The Amateur Night audience was and is legendary for its high standards, and even the slightest falter in a singer’s voice or a misfired joke from a comedian could bring on a wave of derision. On the night I was there, most of the performers fled at the first rumble of displeasure, clutching the shreds of their self-esteem as they vanished in a cloud of atomized ego. Some doughty souls kept at it, however, convinced they could rally and bring the mob to heel. After a few moments a police siren would sound in the wings and Sandman Sims, dressed as a hobo clown — sometimes toting a toy shotgun, other times an umbrella — would shoo them from the stage.      

Word that tonight’s competition will mark Amateur Night’s 75th birthday stirred a lot of pleasurable memories — for a pretty measly ticket price, I got something like four hours of entertainment, most of it at a level that would have passed for professional anywhere else. I went there in the mid-Eighties, and I had a whale of a time from my front-row seat. The theater might have been named for Apollo, but the riotous audience and cornucopia of talent made for a pretty Dionysian atmosphere.

Some of the acts were clearly thrown in as red meat to appease the crowd. For example, the guy in the business suit and tie, looking like he’d stopped in on his way home from the office, who proceeded to regale the theater with some of the worst scat-singing anyone had ever heard, anywhere. I mean, Pat Buchanan could have done better. David Duke could have done better. Only sheer disbelief delayed the audience’s reaction; once they’d recovered, they hooted with gusto, and the scatter headed offstage grinning like the Cheshire Cat. He’d probably just won an office bet. Ralph Cooper, who at that time still presided over the festivities, strolled out and, after a suitable pause, said, “Man, sometimes it’s hard to tell what some people were thinking.” 

Later that evening I witnessed what could only be described as a heroic, come-from-behind victory plucked from the jaws of disgrace. One singer was an extremely thin, awkward looking man in a gray suit and Malcolm X specs; the other was a rather hefty woman in a beige skirt and blouse who stood about a foot taller. They faced each other and began crooning “Come to Me,” starting off a little stiffly. The man flatted out a bit and the booing started, making him grimace in visible pain. Straining for an emotive note, he bent over and extended a hand, inadvertently coming close to gathering in a fistful of his partner’s ample behind. Sheer terror seemed to improve their performance, however, and they ended up holding the stage and even making it to the first round of culling.

I sat near a late-middle-aged woman (I think her name was Eva) who had attended most if not all of the Wednesday talent contests, and when she liked a performer she would get up and dance against the stage. Midway through Amateur Night, an R&B group called Cameo dropped by to pay their respects to the Apollo and show the crowd they hadn’t forgotten where they’d come from. The group sang “Purple Rain,” and the singer laid down across the lip of the stage so he could sing while looking directly into Eva’s face as she danced.  

I haven’t been back to any other Amateur Nights, though from time to time I would watch a bit of It’s Showtime at the Apollo on TV, which was not even a weak approximation of how much fun a real Amateur Night could be. One used to hear stories of isolated cultures thatrefused to allow pictures to be taken, believing that the cameras stole part of the subject’s soul. Comparing my memories to what I could see on the tube, I had to think those people might have been on to something.

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