Before American Idol and Making the Band, stars were born and legends were made at the Apollo Theater, located on 125th Street in the heart of Harlem in New York City. The Apollo has been a renowned black entertainment venue since 1934. From its inception, the Apollo was the place where African-American entertainers launched their careers. The Amateur Night talent showcase is the oldest and most successful star search vehicle in the world. Legendary entertainers discovered at the Apollo includes Stevie Wonder, James Brown and Sarah Vaughn. The lure of the Apollo lies in its nationally televised format. A performer walks onstage, rubs the stump from the "tree of hope" for good luck, gets teased by comedian and host Mo'nique, then goes for the glory.
Performing on Amateur Night is not for the meek: The very unforgiving — largely black — audience decides the fate of contestants. It's no secret that white performers have more to prove, although some have gone on to win the contest. If the crowd likes a performer, applause follows.
The beautiful "boughetto" (bourgeois/ghetto), Vanna White-esque Kiki Shepard saunters onstage and pleasantly escorts performers off to await the final judging. It's all bad if a performer chokes up, misses a step or sounds horrible. Simon Cowell might be a surly asshole, but there is nothing worse than being booed off stage by a audience of thousands with millions of TV viewers watching. Adding insult to defeat, a loud buzzer goes off, signaling an unsuccessful attempt at stardom: The infamous Executioner walks onstage and promptly whisks the loser off.
Why would a novice risk national humiliation to perform at Apollo Amateur Night? It's actually pretty simple: It's the chance for exposure, esteem and bragging rights that he or she graced the same stage as the greatest Jazz, R&B and Hip Hop artists.
For the past three years, Showtime at the Apollo has scoured the country for new talent, holding auditions for Amateur Night. On April 23, Showtime at the Apollo on Tour stopped at Cincinnati's Aronoff Center for the Arts. In 2004, the auditions attracted more than 600 people, setting a record for the largest turnout outside New York City. This year, because of the unseasonably cold temperatures and rain, only 165 hopefuls showed up. For eight hours producer Vanessa Rogers watched a motley crew of dancers, singers and comedians. She is curt yet respectful, and it's obvious that she has seen too many versions of "My mama told me I could sing" by untalented people with two left feet, trying to dance. The majority of aspiring performers were singers with beautiful voices and great range, but Rogers seeks something more.
"I'm looking for people with conviction. You can have a good voice, but attitude and stage presence is important," she says.
At the end of the day Rogers was tired and excited about the talent she had seen.
"I found some really good people today, and I'm positive we will have a fantabulous show," she says.
Of 165 people auditioned, Rogers picked 16 finalists: 11 vocalists, three dance groups, one Hip Hop artist and one stand-up comedian. Mira Roxanne Spangler-Baker, 16, of Louisville, Ky., is the youngest vocalist and the only white performer to make the cut.
"I didn't expect to make it," says Spangler-Baker. "This is my greatest accomplishment." For the finals she will sing "God Bless the Child" by Billie Holiday, a singer whose career began at the Apollo.
The winner of Friday's competition in Cincinnati will receive a $1,000 cash prize and two round-trip tickets to New York to compete at the Apollo Theater for a spot on the nationally televised Showtime at the Apollo.
THE SHOWTIME AT THE APOLLO ON TOUR finalists competition is Friday evening at the Aronoff Center for the Arts.