Talented Philadelphians hope for Apollo glory

Amateur Night audience. Credit: Shahar Azran
Amateur Night gives unknowns with day jobs the chance to own the stage. Credit: Shahar Azran

Eleven hours before Saturday’s open auditions for Amateur Night at the legendary Apollo Theater, lines were already forming at the Kimmel Center.

Marion Caffey, longtime producer, said the weekly show “gives people hope and dreams.”

“Long before there was ‘American Idol’ and ‘America’s Got Talent,’ there was Amateur Night at the Apollo,” Caffey said. “People get to perform on the same stage, and under the same lights, as Ella Fitzgerald and Machine Gun Kelly. Even if they go on to be a neurosurgeon or a bus driver, they will always have their night on the Apollo stage.”

Caffey, who has been involved in the theater for 40 years, estimates that only 2 percent of those who audition succeed in becoming stars. It does not take him long to decide if the person has that “it” factor.

“I know almost immediately if they are going, if they have talent,” he said. “Occasionally, people are nervous so I let them continue for a little longer.”

It seemed likely that several Philadelphia-area residents would be performing on the Apollo stage. Justin Graham, who works as a forklift operator, wowed the judges when he sang and played guitar to his original song, “The One.”

Many in the crowd could relate to comedian Tracy Tatman’s tale of woe. Tracy T, her stage name, lamented, “I’m so broke, I pick flowers out of people’s yards and sell them on the highway.”

The audience clapped after young Nicole Lockley’s performance as Hannah Mae. Her character, an elderly lady with a walker, possesses a posterior that dances to its own beat.

“I have been Hannah Mae since my eighth grade talent show,” Lockley said. “My great-grandmother died that year. I wanted to honor her memory by playing her on stage. This is her wig, dress and walker.”

Those who are not picked for the Apollo’s Amateur Night still walk away from the audition with something — invaluable advice from Caffey. He gently suggested to several singers that they should have chosen a different song. He told two young rappers, Swagg Kidd and Master Roc, to hold the microphone differently while performing because he could not understand the words.


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