The Apollo Kid

Rockville teen Nathan Foley performs "Maggot Brain" as he attempts to secure a record eighth win at the storied contest.

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By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010

HARLEM, N.Y. --It's another glorious Wednesday evening on 125th Street in Harlem. The setting sun glints off the names hammered into the sidewalk in bronze: Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Gladys Knight. The marquee glows: "Welcome to the World Famous Apollo Theater." People with tickets dine on fried catfish and smothered chicken at Sylvia's soul food restaurant, around the corner on Lenox Avenue, then hurry to the line forming under the marquee.

Tonight's show is sold out, all 1,526 red-cushioned seats snapped up for $18 to $40.

One level down, below the storied stage, the mirrored walls of the Green Room enclose a different kind of frenzy. The Green Room is where the performers wait before they go on. The people in this room are unknown, their names unbronzed. Wednesday is Amateur Night, a tradition inaugurated in 1934 and continued with few interruptions since. It is when the maybe-talented and the wanna-be-famous compete before one of the toughest audiences in the land. Fitzgerald, Knight, Pearl Bailey, Sarah Vaughan, the Jackson 5, Dionne Warwick and many others soared to stardom from Amateur Night.

Performers deemed unworthy are mercilessly booed. Brown, Lauryn Hill, Luther Vandross and Dave Chappelle were booed. C.P. Lacey, the tap-dancing "Executioner" in a pin-striped suit, drives the most reviled contenders from the stage with a siren blast.

Contestants primp at mirrors in the Green Room, warble harmonies in the corridor. A 32-year-old female poet from Harlem, dressed like Michael Jackson, twitches and twirls. A dance troupe from Japan does impossible contortions. A 25-year-old music graduate student from London lugs in her cello.

Trying to hear himself in the rising din, a thin young man in black slacks and a black T-shirt restlessly picks staccato scales on his unplugged electric guitar. His iridescent gray sport coat hangs nearby. His black fedora is on the floor beside his guitar case.

He is Nathan Foley, 16, of Rockville, a junior at Montgomery Blair High School.

Foley has been making history at the Apollo. He has finished first on Amateur Night seven straight times over two years. This has never been done in the theater's 76-year history, according to producers and resident historian Billy Mitchell.

On this October Wednesday, Foley's eighth appearance, he is competing for "Super Top Dog," the best of the best of 2010. First prize is $10,000. There is no second prize.

"If I have the resources after tonight, I'm definitely getting a new guitar," Foley says to his guitar teacher, Eric Ulreich of the Levine School of Music.

Foley pays for all his equipment out of savings from infrequent gigs. But for Foley, it's not all about the money. The Apollo is not an end; it is a hallowed gateway to a seemingly limitless future.


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