The country’s longest-running talent competition has recently undergone a format change, which has boosted attendance 20 percent at the Apollo Theater in New York City.
Amateur Night at the legendary Harlem venue, which has been credited for launching the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Prince and Mariah Carey, has consistently been filling 1,526 seats, with 30 more standing-room-only attendees, on Wednesday nights.
This year, 42,919 tickets were sold for the theater, which utilizes an $8.7 million operating budget. Ticket prices range from $10 for students and seniors up to $27.
Marion J. Caffey, a former Broadway actor, writer, producer and choreographer who joined the Apollo as Amateur Night producer two years ago, has revamped the format by decreasing the number of contestants to 12 from between 20 to 25. A pre-show DJ party also was added an hour before show time, which has resulted in audience members dancing in the aisles.
“The goal was to tighten up the show so it moves along [at a better pace]. We wanted to offer better talent in a shorter time span,” Caffey said. “The show used to run two to three hours, but we’ve kept it at two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.”
The relaunch of Amateur Night coincided with the theater’s 75th anniversary last year.
“By holding a press conference and birthday celebration that focused on both our anniversary and Amateur Night, we brought more recognition and importance to the show,” said Nina Flowers, associate director of marketing and communications at the theater.
With the help of Amateur Night’s sponsor, Coca-Cola, the Apollo ramped up marketing and instituted theme nights.
In June, the theater collaborated with the New York Department of Education to create Teachers Night.
“New York teachers performed in a sold-out show,” Flowers said.
A Brooklyn theme night, geared for its residents, is scheduled for Oct. 2.
“It was important to be very careful and respectful when implementing new ideas into something that already works,” Caffey said. “But it was necessary to reinvent and infuse new energy into the show’s tried and true concept.”
Greater attention to marketing the show also has been credited for the attendance boost.
For the first time, the Apollo ran television ads on local station New York 1 and instituted a subway ad campaign.
“We also expanded our e-mail list to 60,000,” Flowers said.
In addition, it was announced this week that the theater will start holding online Amateur Night auditions to expand the show’s reach.
“We have a wonderful marketing department that has played a huge part in growing our audiences, plus word-of-mouth has been very good for the show,” Caffey said.
The new format has also helped expand the theater’s reach beyond the city. Between 40 to 60 percent of Amateur Night’s audiences are tourists, while another 20 to 30 percent are New Yorkers.
The show is divided into two parts. Child Stars of Tomorrow includes kids ages five to 15. The adult portion of the show follows. Audience members vote on the winners by applauding and cheering. Adult acts that don’t make the cut are booed off the stage.
Amateur Night winners compete in four Show Off competitions, which are held on separate nights. Winners move on to the Top Dog and then, at the end of the season, those winners compete in the final Super Top Dog show. The winner receives a $10,000 prize, while the Child Stars of Tomorrow champion wins $2,000.
“The talent Marion has brought in is exceptional. He has a knack for nurturing the performers,” said Billy “Mr. Apollo” Mitchell, the Apollo’s historian, tour guide and goodwill ambassador, who has been behind the scenes since 1964.
“Before American Idol, America’s Got Talent and Star Search, there was Amateur Night. We’ve launched more careers than any other talent competition,” Caffey said. “My goal is to birth a star.” – Lisa White
Interviewed for this article: Marion J. Caffey, (352) 219-5308; Nina Flowers, (212) 531-5334; Billy Mitchell, (212) 531-5337