President and CEO of Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater Foundation, Jonelle Procope will celebrate the Apollo’s 75th anniversary on June 8. At the event, the Apollo will induct Quincy Jones and Patti LaBelle into their Legends Hall of Fame, with Jamie Foxx and Mariah Carey presenting. Bill and Camille Cosby will also receive the Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis Arts and Humanitarian Award at the celeb-studded gala. Jonelle spoke with us about standing on the same stage as so many legends before her, why Steve Harvey represents the Apollo man, and a few cues about Amateur Night.
How are you coping just days away from the big event? You’re making me nervous! It’s always like this … we start the countdown to the date of the event, but this is a particularly exciting gala for us, because it will be kicking off our 75th anniversary celebration, which is going to be an 18-month event, and the focus will be on a number of new initiatives which we will be rolling out. I’m also excited because people have really rallied — from my board, to individual supporters, to new corporate supporters — to get us almost to our goal. I’m hoping that in the next ten days we’ll be able to come in and meet our goal — which is amazing in this economy.
Is the goal to raise enough money to cover the renovations for the Apollo? No, no, no. First of all, the Apollo is a not-for-profit foundation, so we rely on the generosity of individual corporations, foundations, and public support. This gala is my primary fundraiser for my annual operating fund. In other words, this money goes toward supporting the operations of institutions, and it allows me to provide some of the programs during the course of a year. It allows me to open my doors and invite our community in to experience performances, education programs, and panel discussions. That’s why the gala is a very important part of our fund-raising strategy.
Last year there was talk that the renovations would be completed by 2011. Is this still the case? The initial time table was to close the theater in 2010 and complete the final phase in our renovations. However, when the economy imploded, the board discussed it, and we were trying to be fiscally responsible, and we determined that it didn’t make sense, and it probably was overly optimistic to think that we could raise the remaining $18 million to complete the renovations. We’ve pushed that off for the future, but we’re still committed to completing the renovation. We will be fund-raising in our Capital Campaign, but I think that we’re looking at a three- to five-year period of time before we’re able to raise the money and complete the renovations. Across the board, everybody is making these types of changes. Primarily in the not-for-profit world, I think we all suffer disproportionately.
What are your favorite aspects of your job? The job of running this iconic theater is something that I could have never imagined. This is my dream job: to be in charge of preserving its legacy and providing the leadership and the vision for what the theater should be as we look to the 21st century. I love the job because it combines many different things that I’ve done in my professional career. I love the performing arts and the entertainment industry, so I’m able to satisfy that curiosity and love of culture. I love working with different types of people, and I get to do that. I love the idea of giving back. I love the fact that we’re able to have an impact on the lives of young people because we focus on careers behind the scenes, behind the camera, behind the curtain. It opens up a world that a lot of young people or early career professionals really aren’t aware of. To be in the theater itself and know all of the legendary performers that stood on this stage: Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn, and Duke Ellington.
What’s a typical day like for you? I spend most of the day in the theater. There really isn’t a typical day. I could start the morning with some meetings with my executive staff. I could be sitting and talking about strategy and how we would like to focus on programming for the future. I could be meeting with a potential funder to talk about one of my new programs that I would like them to support. It could be meeting talent and talking to them about some of the things we may be able to collaborate on for the Apollo. It varies. Each day is like an adventure.
How did you decide on Steve Harvey as a host for the 75th anniversary event? Steve has a history with the Apollo. For many people, Steve is connected with the Showtime at the Apollo syndicated television show, which ran for 18 years. Steve comes back from time to time and does live broadcasts of his syndicated radio show from the stage of the Apollo. It just makes sense to have him as the host of the event. He’s comfortable in the building and on the stage and in the context of his knowledge of the Apollo. And he’s funny. In past years, we’ve had Wanda Sykes and Chris Tucker. We always have a host with a comedic flare.
Who will be receiving awards this year? We’re inducting Quincy Jones, who happens to be a member of the Apollo board, and Patti LaBelle. These two people have been trailblazers in the industry due to their accomplishments and their ability to reinvent themselves over the years. Many people don’t know Quincy Jones is actually a musician. He played the trumpet. He produced albums for Frank Sinatra. A lot of people remember that he’s the one who put together and organized the “We Are the World” song to raise money to help feed starving people around the world. He also produced Michael Jackson’s album Off the Wall. Patti LaBelle is another performer whose career has spanned four decades. She started with the group, Patti LaBelle and The Blue Bells, and after that she had another group, LaBelle. Now she has a solo career and is still very much a part of the current entertainment landscape. She embodies all of the characteristics of a performer that I would call a legend. These two people happen to be living legends. We’ve also inducted posthumously — James Brown and Ella Fitzgerald. Jamie Foxx will be presenting to Quincy Jones, and Mariah Carey will be presenting to Patti LaBelle. That bridges the legend with a contemporary artist who is influenced by and an admirer of the legend.
Any other surprises? We have an award in the name of Ossie Davis and his wife, called the Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis Arts and Humanitarian Award. It’s special because it is given to a couple who have embodied the characteristics that we think were uniquely embodied by Ruby and Ossie as a couple. Not only were they (and Ruby continues to be) at the top of their game as artists, but they were social activists as well. They cared about the issues that affected the African American community and they were humanitarians. This year the award is going to Bill Cosby and his wife Camille Cosby. It’ll be presented my Phylicia Rashad, who most people know was part of the cast of The Cosby Show. We’re really excited to have Phylicia reunited with Bill on our stage. Is it an incredible show with a very diverse audience. It’s always a fun evening, and then it’s followed by a party in the Apollo Supper Club in the back of the theater.
Who would you name as your career icons? I love strong women. I admired Eleanor Roosevelt. I admire Katherine Graham, Michelle Obama, Susan Wright. I admire the really strong, smart women who are in the administration. I admire Hillary Clinton.
What’s one thing that people might no know about you? In a previous life, I actually managed jazz artists. That comes full circle. Music has always been at my core and at the Apollo’s core.
Do you have any stories about Amateur Night that you can share? We have this segment that opens the show where the host just arbitrarily picks people from the audience to come onto the stage and compete. They do a dance to the music of the house band, and every week, the most unlikely people come up on the stage. They can really, really dance. At one amateur night, the host said that we had a special guest, and he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am really, really pleased to present Stevie Wonder.” So out came Stevie Wonder who started singing, though actually it was our own C.P. Lacey, who is otherwise known as “The Executioner.” He does impersonations. He’s the one who gives people the hook if they’re bad. CP does impersonations of a number of different performers, and his Stevie Wonder is really, really good. We couldn’t believe the audience actually thought that he was Stevie Wonder.
Advice to artists who want to be a compete in Amateur Night? The big thing is to try out. If you think you have talent, and you want to do it, you have to come and audition. A lot of people don’t take the chance because if you don’t do it, you’re not in it, and you can’t win it.
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