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Worn Velvet And Fractured
Finances At the Apollo

By Paula Span
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 1998

  Style Showcase
    The Apollo The Apollo Theatre is struggling and needs renovations. (Mitsu Yasukawa/For The Washington Post)
NEW YORK—"When I introduce the Cocoa Brovaz, I want you to show them some love," commanded a very large emcee named Tha Big Scoop. On cue, as the Apollo Theatre curtain ascended and the rising rappers from Brooklyn took the stage, wielding words like blunt objects, a dancing, swaying crowd cheered them on. Briefly, the venerable theater on Harlem's 125th Street felt once more like a place that brags it's "where stars are born and legends are made."

But only briefly. Most of the time, the Apollo is a forlorn shrine with a glorious past but an uncertain future. And for the past few weeks an ugly squabble over money and control has dominated the present.

Even the teenagers in backward Yankees caps who'd come to hear hip-hop understood why the place mattered. Host to every black entertainer who's counted for most of the past 60 years, the Apollo once showcased Count Basie and Duke Ellington, Little Richard and James Brown, the Temps, the Pips, the Jacksons. Throw in Stevie Wonder when he was still Little Stevie, Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles. And all those luminaries whose last names are superfluous: Aretha, Ella, Sammy. Stories still circulate about the famously exacting audiences at the Apollo's Amateur Night, who booed the young Luther Vandross off the stage four times in a row before he passed muster.

And now? The theater is dark for weeks at a stretch except for the still-lively Wednesday amateur contests. Its marquee is battered, only partly lit. Inside, paint flakes from the ceiling. The recording and television studios with which it hoped to supplement its revenues are outmoded. It's not a wreck, but it's notably shabby.

To create a contemporary Apollo worthy of its history, a $30 million fund-raising campaign is underway. Yet the city and state are withholding more than $700,000 in resuscitative grants and loans while various parties lob charges and the state attorney general looks into who owes what to whom.

There've been obits prepared for this place before, of course. In the '70s the Apollo shut down altogether, until former Manhattan borough president and broadcasting baron Percy Sutton bought it in 1981 and began extensive renovations. When Sutton and his investors lost money and were unable to repay millions in government loans, the state took over the building in 1992. A nonprofit foundation – its board headed by leading Harlemite Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) – shouldered the theater's administration. Sutton retained the rights to use the Apollo's highly recognizable name, however, and he continued to produce and syndicate the late-evening TV show "It's Showtime at the Apollo."

This is the cast of characters in the current contretemps. At issue is that popular broadcast, seen in 110 cities and one of the highest-rated hourly shows in syndication (in Washington it airs after "Saturday Night Live" on WRC). "It's Showtime" is the only Apollo operation to make any serious money, and according to the licensing agreement the Apollo Theatre Foundation is entitled to 25 percent of its profits. The question is, how much profit exists.

Very little, is the position of Sutton's Inner City Theater Group, which in the past five years has handed over something like $250,000 (different parties use different numbers). But government officials close to the situation contend that the amount owed is far higher, about $4.4 million. They compare Inner City's bookkeeping to that of Hollywood studios – so many expenses conveniently erode the bottom line that profits all but evaporate.

Once the New York Daily News made this internal tussle public, the brawl was on. In an editorial, the paper said Rangel "has allowed the Apollo to fall into sad disrepair" and called for him to step down as chairman of the board. A subsequent op-ed piece by Randy Daniels, a senior vice president of the state agency that owns the theater, blasted "an entrenched elite that treats the Apollo as a fiefdom."

Rangel, maintaining that the production expenses are legitimate and that investigations will show all required sums paid in full, is crying politics. (It may not be entirely coincidental that this is the first time New York's mayor and governor have been Republicans since Lindsay and Rockefeller.) "Now that we have access to a couple of million and we're turning the corner, the [expletives] have to go and do this," the congressman complains.

The 77-year-old Sutton, meanwhile, is threatening to sue public officials and media organizations for libel. His bitter assessment: "You spend a lifetime doing good and in the September of your life someone, for political purposes – without an investigation, without an audit, without anything – convicts you, holds you to public ridicule."

Now Attorney General Dennis Vacco will spend weeks or months trawling through reams of documents that the foundation and Sutton's company have agreed to provide. The most likely outcome, government officials say, is a settlement for a sum somewhere between the disputed amounts.

But meanwhile, what of the Apollo? It's still famous: Each Sunday, buses ferrying tourists through Harlem stop on 125th Street so that visitors from every continent can snap photos of one another beneath its marquee. And it's still struggling.

With about 1,300 worn velvet seats, the Apollo is too small to generate the money that today's top recording artists demand. And with African American musicians no longer barred from the largest concert halls, as they were in the Apollo's heyday, even relative newcomers head downtown. "Erykah Badu should've played the Apollo," mourns Mary Flowers, promoter of most of the Apollo's shows, including last week's rap-orama. "But she went straight to Radio City, and she'll never come back."

The timing is sadly ironic: At long last 125th Street, Harlem's main drag, is showing signs of economic life, riding the city's boom as entrepreneurial development groups entice private money uptown. Half a block from the Apollo, construction is set to begin this summer for Harlem USA, the sort of mall-like entertainment and retail complex (starring Disney and Old Navy stores, HMV Records and a Cineplex Odeon gigaplex) that's helped tame Times Square. Harlem's only full-service supermarket, a big Pathmark, is rising several blocks to the east.

After years of helping to keep 125th Street alive, the Apollo, a national historic landmark, is going to look dowdy and frayed compared to the shiny new enterprises.

But perhaps not for long. The one thing everyone in and around this skirmish agrees on is that there's a future for the Apollo. It'll be a multi-use facility! It'll have a big gift shop! It'll book a wider variety of concerts! It'll survive with subsidies from government and foundations!

There are myriad plans and predictions. Many are familiar, but so is the sense that the show has to go on. Mary Flowers is planning another rap extravaganza for July, even though she lost money on the last one. Call it bravado or call it faith.

"Wait till they get ahold of it," says Flowers, who is sure that government, or perhaps some private tycoon, will step in any day. "They'll fund it so people will play there. They'll make it bigger and prettier. They'll make that place what it needs to be. I hope I'm living to see it happen."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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