Friday, July 31, 2009

Amateur Night in Harlem

The Apollo Theater is located at 253 West 125th Street. In 1934 it was an all-white, mostly Irish neighborhood. The Apollo was an all-black theatre. You can imagine at the time there was a little tension. Morris Sussman managed the theatre, and Sidney Cohen's ownership. They hired Ralph Cooper away from the Lafayette Theatre to emcee.Ralph went Rogue and got permission for a crazy idea. He wanted to do a live talent show once a week out of the Apollo. It launched in 1934. In 1936 WMCA-AM began carrying the program called "Amateur Night in Harlem" The program ran at 11:00 PM on WMCA-AM in New York. There is some date confusion here but Radio logs clearly date it to 1936.

Potential contestants had to audition Monday night. There were cash prizes for those that survived the initial screening process. Screening was merciless, with booing, and an official "executioner" who removed some from the stage manually. Then the survivors returned Wednesday night.

The Benny Carter Band woudl begin to play the show theme "I may be wrong" and then Ralph Cooper called the dancers, singers, comedians and others to stage one at a time by name. Some of these names included Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Luther Vandross, Pearl Bailey, Nat King Cole, Prince, the Jackson Five, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis Jr., and Ella Fitzgerald. Amazingly because of time limitations the radio show concluded before the competition had ended! Listeners woudl swamp the theatre with calls asking who won.

Down the Block was the competing Harlem Opera House. It's owner Frank Schiffman opened his own Harley Amateur Night to compete. It aired on WNEW-AM, but only or about a year. The WMCA program ran for 15 years, and eventually was syndicated on the ABC Network as "The Original Harlem Amateur Hour" hosted by Dizzy Gillespie. In 1935, After Sidney Cohen died of a heart attack the venues merged and the Opera House became a movie theatre.

Schiffman ran both until 1961 and his son Bobby took over. In 1976 the theatre went bankrupt and was bought out by Percey Sutton, ironicly it's first black owner. It celebrated it's 50th aniversary in 1985. Ralph Cooper died in 1992 at the age of 80.