HARLEM — It's easy to look at all the names who have played the Apollo Theater stage, such as James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, and think that the 125th Street landmark has already seen its best days.
But as the Apollo celebrates its 80th anniversary tonight, President and CEO Jonelle Procope wants to disabuse anyone of that notion. After eight decades, the Apollo Theater is now an institution that is capable of both celebrating its legacy while still giving new talent the chance to shine.
"People look at our history and ask where are the Ella Fitzgeralds and James Browns today?" said Procope when asked about a recent music critic's assertion that the Apollo is no longer the venue that launches the stars of African-American culture.
"They are already on our stage. They just aren't legends yet. We continue to be at the forefront of artistic innovation and to create opportunities for young artists to perform," she added.
Among the initiatives keeping the theater relevant are Apollo Music Cafe, an intimate sound stage that features underground artists performing things like Ghanaian Hip-Hop.
The Apollo's Salon Series is for those avant-garde artists who are mid-career and looking for a bigger breakthrough.
Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival is a collaborative effort with other institutions to celebrate Harlem's rich Jazz history and to introduce new artists.
"When those big names were on our stage they weren't legends yet. They became legends by performing on this stage. It launched careers and nurtured talent," said Procope. "We are proud of our history but the majority of our current programming provides opportunities for emerging artists."
Soul singer Julissa Lopez, 26, who performs under the stage name Jules Truly, hopes to add her name to the list of talents who got their big break at the Apollo.
When she was 12, Lopez was cast as an alternate in the original production of "The Lion King" as Young Nala. She enjoyed performing but decided to take a break from performing to attend college upstate.
Now living in The Bronx, Lopez wants to give singing another chance. She's one of the performers who will showcase her talent at the Apollo Theater's Amateur Night Wednesday where the audience has the power to boo contestants not deemed worthy. The famous segment is also celebrating its 80th anniversary.
"To me it's like having another chance. I had given up on it, I stopped," said Lopez who expects the experience to be intense. "To finally do this one more time at the Apollo is wonderful because the theater's reputation is perfect for giving that second chance."
Procope said stories like Lopez' show the Apollo's commitment to new artists.
In the last few years alone artists like rapper Machine Gun Kelly performed at the Amateur Night before being signed to P. Diddy's Bad Boy Records. Up-and-coming dancer Storyboard P has performed at the theater and Sevyn Streeter, who has written hits for Chris Brown, performed on the Apollo's stage as a kid.
The programming all fits in with the Apollo's rich history. When it opened in 1934 it was the only non-segregated theater in Harlem. The building itself is 100 years old and operated as a burlesque house before the 1,500 seat neo-classical theater turned its focus on African American music.
Today, you are as likely to find a tourist from Asia enjoying Amateur Night as someone who has lived in Harlem most of their lives.
"People are always amazed at the diversity of the audience but that's what makes the Apollo unique. It's who's on the stage and who's in the audience," said Procope.
Artists like Lopez hope being on the Apollo stage is the start of a long career in the arts.
"I just want to be heard at the Apollo because all the greats have been there," said Lopez. "That's why we have to keep the theater going for another 100 years. There's so much more to come."