The motto of Harlem's fabled Apollo Theatre is "Where stars are born and legends are made." For four decades -- from the '30s, when owners first admitted black audiences, to the '70s, when it was shuttered -- the Apollo gave more to American popular music than any other single venue.
Winners of the Apollo's famed Amateur Night include Pearl Bailey (in 1934, the year it started), Sarah Vaughan, James Brown, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick and the Jackson Five. Billie Holiday performed there. So, too, Ella Fitzgerald, Richard Pryor, Stevie Wonder and Bill Cosby.
But today the Apollo's grand legacy has been reduced to a faded mural in the lobby. The 1,400-seat auditorium is empty nearly six nights out of seven. The venerable Tree of Hope, a stump performers touched for good luck, sits on an empty stage. Luck has not smiled on the Apollo in decades. Among the most serious problems:
Money: The state-owned theater lives a hand-to-mouth existence despite "Showtime at the Apollo," a lucrative syndicated TV show taped there by Percy Sutton, the businessman and former Manhattan borough president. Although required by contract to pay a percentage of his show's revenue to the Apollo Theatre Foundation, the nonprofit corporation that runs the theater, Sutton has paid only a nominal sum.
The foundation is headed by Sutton's very close friend Rep. Charles Rangel. Sutton's lawyer, Basil Paterson, is also treasurer of Rangel's reelection campaign. The tangle of relationships raises doubts about whether the deal is truly arm's length.
Physical Condition: Despite a renovation in the '80s that Sutton puts at $20 million, a recent New York Landmarks Conservancy report notes that the facade is crumbling, the famous "APOLLO" sign is in disrepair and the marquee requires major work. Inside, seats are shabby, plaster is crumbling and auditorium stairs "require attention as a matter of safety," says the conservancy, a private group.
Empty Stage: Mostly, the Apollo sits dark -- a major economic loss to Harlem. In a city teeming with talent, the foundation attracts only sporadic events, though the theater boasts a modern recording studio and sound system.
The current crisis has been gathering for years.
After the death of its long-time owner, the Apollo fell into bankruptcy in the 1970s and closed. In 1982, Sutton, whose Inner City Broadcasting owns radio stations WLIB and WBLS, persuaded the state's Harlem Urban Development Corp. to buy the theater and turn it over to him to operate.
While that kept the theater alive, the benefits have gone almost exclusively to Sutton. His "Showtime at the Apollo" is seen by 2.5 million people a week and is tied for third place among syndicated programs nationwide. Variety, the entertainment trade paper, says the show's costs are "surprisingly small."
High ratings and low costs usually translate into big profits, and they almost certainly have for Sutton. But not for the Apollo.
Under a 1992 license agreement, Sutton is required to pay the foundation $2,000 for every day he uses the building or 25% of his show's net profits, whichever is greater. From 1992 to 1997, Sutton typically used the theater about 20 days a year, and he never paid more than the $2,000 daily minimum.
As the five-year deal drew to a close in December, the foundation's somnambulant board began asking Sutton for back payments. Sutton agreed to pay a mere $145,000 -- less than 5% of the millions knowledgeable sources believe the deal calls for.
Like so much at the Apollo, the talks were an insiders' game. Asked about the $145,000 settlement figure, foundation Vice Chairman Eugene McCabe said it was based on "how much the Apollo needed" -- not a formal accounting. Sutton refused to be interviewed, though he said he would answer written questions. When a list of questions was sent to his office, he refused to comment.
Some 15 years ago, Sutton got $11 million in low-interest loans from the state and city and $2.9 from Manufacturer's Hanover for renovations. He has said he put $6 million of his own into the project. A 1987 state audit found shoddy bookkeeping and missing files. Four years later, the loans were set aside and HUDC set up the nonprofit corporation to operate the theater.
But, under his contract, Sutton kept the Apollo's most valuable assets -- use of the building, its legendary name and trademark rights. The terms were favorable enough to Sutton, but they got even better when the foundation board failed to collect its royalties. The board is headed by Congressman Rangel.