Calling All Amateurs: The Apollo Theater Turns 80 Image courtesy of The Apollo Theater

The Apollo Theater in Harlem turned 80 this year, and at the center of the celebration is the revival of Amateur Night. For the uninitiated, Amateur Night at The Apollo is a hilarious, weekly performance showcase featuring would-be stars that are sometimes so bad they make Shreds videos sound good. It wasn’t always this way.

In its 80-year history, Amateur Night at The Apollo has helped launch the careers of many icons. To help revive the Amateur Night legacy, the theater is currently accepting submissions for an updated version of the theme song, one that they hope will reflect the history of its flagship talent show, which predates American Idol, Star Search and the X Factor.

"Isn't the best part of attending Amateur Night the joy one receives when shamelessly booing talentless hacks offstage?

"Amateur Night has always been about opportunity," said Dexter Upshaw, the Digital Manager at The Apollo who is heading up the competition. "Of course every week we have vocalists, dancers, comedians who come to the theater hoping for the opportunity to have their voice heard and to win and to get their big break into the business. What people may not realize is that the Apollo has been home to a lot of songwriters as well." 

The songwriters who enter the competition, which closes February 26, must upload the song to YouTube where it will be judged by the Internet and also several producers at the theater. In the end, a live audience at The Apollo will determine which tune becomes the official new theme song for the show.

"This songwriting competition gives people the opportunity to be a part of the legacy of the theater," said Upshaw. "Our show is high energy. It’s a lot of fun. It meets every week. We thought it would be great to give [songwriters] an opportunity to be a part of that."

Be that as it may, isn't the best part of attending Amateur Night the joy one receives when shamelessly booing talentless hacks offstage? In the age of "no haters," isn't Amateur Night a sacred space for proud, smug assholes to enjoy watching others fail?

"I would say that for audience members, they enjoy the opportunity to have their voice heard. They enjoy the opportunity to express how they feel," explains Upshaw. "Now the interesting thing is, if you talk to a lot of people in the audience, some of them are uncomfortable with booing, and others, obviously they love it and they search for the opportunity to do it." 

"This songwriting competition gives people the opportunity to be a part of the legacy of the theater."

Haters and non-haters in the Amateur Night audience aside, it’s hard to overestimate the cultural value of The Apollo Theater. Even if Amateur Night is unlikely to produce another prodigy like Ella Fitzgerald as it did in 1934, it's important to take this time during Black History Month to acknowledge The Apollo’s status as a cultural beacon in America. Michael Jackson and The Jackson FiveBillie HolidayLuther Vandross, Gladys Knight & the PipsJames BrownStevie WonderLauryn HillDionne Warwick and more began their careers on its stage, the memorial service for the Velvet Underground's Lou Reed was held there in December, and a new generation of talent will find its way there, too.

Click through to look back at memorable moments at The Apollo Theater in Harlem since 1934.

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