NEW YORK (AP) — Jonelle Procope’s 20-year tenure as president and CEO of The Apollo Theater evolved into an era of prosperity and expansion, markedly different from the tumultuous, cash-strapped decades that preceded it.
Sure, the early years were a struggle, as the New York City landmark, where music legends from Billie Holiday and Stevie Wonder to D’Angelo and countless rappers graced the stage, dealt with financial difficulties and a shifting business model. And she had to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic when the hub of its Harlem neighborhood was closed for two years.
However, when Procope steps down at the end of June, she will leave her successor Michelle Ebanks – the Essence Communications executive who was named her replacement last week – with the proceeds of a nearly $80 million campaign raised to complete a renovation and expansion of the historic theater by 2025. Though the bulk of that money came from donations, it also includes $15.7 million in support from the city of New York and a $10 million grant from the state.
On Monday night, Procope was honored, alongside hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs and basketball superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, at The Apollo’s Spring Benefit for her service.
“It’s been a privilege and an honor,” Procope told The Associated Press in an interview. “In many respects, I think I take more away than what I gave. It really has made me a whole person.”
That said, she admits protecting The Apollo and building it into what it is now – the largest African American performing arts presenting organization in the country – has basically been her life throughout her tenure.
“It’s been 20 years of 24/7 Apollo,” said Procope, 72. “Frankly, I haven’t had space in my brain to really think about ‘What do you want to do next?’ So I’m excited to have a moment to be reflective and to think about the things that turn me on, what I am passionate about, what are things that I’m curious about.”
Charles E. Phillips, chairman of the Apollo’s board, has said Procope turned around the once-bankrupt theater almost single-handedly. “Jonelle has led the Apollo through an unparalleled period of growth,” Phillips said in a statement, adding that she also “forged partnerships globally, strengthened the Apollo’s finances, broadened a uniquely diverse audience, and navigated the institution through a challenging pandemic.”
John Goerke, director of guest experience at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, said the preservation of The Apollo Theater has been among the top priorities in American music history. The Apollo – especially through its still-running Amateur Night, captured on the TV series “Showtime at The Apollo” – has launched the careers of legendary performers ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Lauryn Hill.
“The venue is history you can see in real time,” he said. “You can literally go there and experience history with all the artists who have performed at The Apollo. They are telling the story of America.”
Procope said she had just started on the Apollo Theater board with opera legend Beverly Sills, then the chairwoman of Lincoln Center, when Sills referred to the Apollo as “the Lincoln Center of Uptown.”
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that sounds a little hokey,’” Procope said. “But we all understood what she meant. And the question was: Why shouldn’t there be a performing arts center for Harlem and the Uptown community? So that was always a vision.”
That vision of creating the Apollo Performing Arts Center is becoming reality, with the first phase opening last year with two new small theaters, meant for small concerts and theater workshops.
However, that was only possible after The Apollo fixed its finances. Once America became less segregated, the 1,500-seat main theater was no longer able to economically compete for concerts from major Black stars who were able to fill large arenas like Madison Square Garden.
That competition led to The Apollo losing millions each year and eventually going bankrupt in 1984. Though the theater became a nonprofit in 1991, run by The Apollo Theater Foundation, as recently as 2002, it struggled with financing for its ambitious shows.
When Procope took over in 2003, the former corporate lawyer methodically began The Apollo’s turnaround.
She credits the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone for providing The Apollo with one of its first major grants, which allowed her to hire a team to create a new business plan that balanced high arts entertainment and commercial programming.
“We were able to gain the confidence of the public and the philanthropic community,” she said. “We began to get grants from what I would call ‘blue chip foundations’ – Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, Sherman Fairchild (Foundation) and a number of others. That, for me, showed the confidence that they had in the Apollo leadership and what the Apollo was doing.”
Those donations allowed The Apollo to launch its educational programs, which served more than 20,000 students and their families annually before the pandemic, and make much-needed repairs. It could soon afford to expand its artistic ambitions, as well as its physical space.
Procope is excited about the upcoming expansion for The Apollo that will create a café in the lobby where the community can gather every day, even when there aren’t shows in the theater. That expansion, expected to open in 2025, formalizes what has become a tradition in Harlem, where people gather at The Apollo to grieve and celebrate the lives of major performers after they die.
It happened as recently as last month following the death of Tina Turner, but has been an Apollo phenomenon for years –- following the deaths of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Michael Jackson, among others.
“The Apollo and its marquee has become synonymous with those moments – when people don’t know what to do with their grief, so they’ve turned to The Apollo,” Procope said. “The Michael Jackson period was just incredible. The people wrapped around 125th Street, coming into the theater just to listen because we played his music. People were on the stage and some danced in their seats. It was a sort of release.”
For Procope, that showed how The Apollo, which turns 90 in January, had become a “beacon of hope” for Harlem once again. And she does not take stewardship of that hope lightly.
She said she waited to step down until she was sure it was safe.
“The Apollo has had a few different lives,” Procope said. “It’s had its fits and starts, but it has endured. And what I do know for sure is: This time, it’s here to stay.”
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