Amateur Night at the Apollo: Behind the Boos of America's Toughest Crowd

Backstage for the 81st season of the Harlem institution, a hotbed of nerves, joy and agony

Amateur night at the Apollo theater in New York City on February 18th, 2015. Credit: Rebecca Greenfield

The walk back from meeting the Executioner can be a lonely one. 

A limber 19-year-old with black-and-silver braids, a sparkly shirt like a Chippendales dancer and shoes like Michael Jackson, Mahiro flew all the way from Saitama City, Japan to dance at Harlem's iconic Apollo Theater. It's safe to say — after a sea of boos, a siren and "the Executioner" dancing him off stage (dressed as James Brown, no less) — things did not go his way.

The Apollo green room buzzes with activity. Tonight's guest star, Jazmine Sullivan, takes photographs by the Apollo logo; a TV provides a fuzzy approximation of the action upstairs; performers and their guests spending the night talking and preparing. Mahiro, alone, silently walks to the back of the room, wipes off some sweat, gathers his props, ties his braids into a ponytail, sits cross-legged in a heap on the floor and stares at who-knows-what. Amateur Night at the Apollo opened its 81st season on Wednesday, February 18th; and it had already claimed its first victim.

"We offer them what no one else offers them — the power of the boo."

Amateur Night at the Apollo, one of America's most beloved musical institutions, is world famous for being one of the first places untapped talent emerges before evolving into superstardom. It was there when you could breathe the word "amateur" around people like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Frankie Lymon, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, the Jackson 5 and Lauryn Hill among many others — including, most recently, inked-up Caucasian rapper Machine Gun Kelly, who claimed a pair of 2009 victories. Though the music has changed and the audience has become more tourist-heavy, two things remain: the stump from the "tree of hope" that contestants have been rubbing for luck since the Thirties, and the notoriously tough crowd.

"We offer them what no one else offers them — the power of the boo," says Amateur Night producer Marion J. Caffey. "When you watch little old ladies, Eurocentric ladies and African ladies and Asian ladies, man, power up their boo? And they've never booed a person in their lives? And the freedom that comes over them, when it's like, 'Is it OK?' To watch that transformation in the audience where, by the last person or second-to-the-last person, they feel like, 'Hmmm… I'm gonna try this! Booo!' And it's a timid boo! Yet, it is a boo from deep within." 

Downstairs in the green room, tonight's group of amateurs are hoping not to be on the receiving end.

"It's been in the back of my mind, percolating, that it's a possibility," says MarissaAnn, 17, "But, I'm an optimistic person, as I try to be. So I'm just trying to be positive."

The high school senior doesn't seen especially fazed, outside of aimlessly rubbing her arm. She's a veteran of such competitions, having been on season three of The Voice ("I made it to the knock-out round at 15. So it was like, years ago.")

However, as she talks, Mahiro is expelling what seems like nervous energy all over, doing splits and slamming to the ground. Mahiro says he speaks a little English with a bit of a sigh and a wheeze. He auditioned for Amateur Night last year on a visit, and is in America for the second time ever. "I'm back to Japan, they call me, come back, to my phones," he says. "So I'm come second time, five days ago." He performs what he calls "animation dance," a frenetic, post-breakdancing style with lots of rubber-limbed pops, locks and freezes. The sometime dance instructor admits some anxiety — "A little. A little. I want to enjoying my performance, a little nervous" — and rubs his legs.

While the clogged room whirrs with activity — a singer warming up with some syllables, a young breakdancer practicing his moves, both Mahiro and MarissaAnn looking themselves over in full-length mirrors — a cooler head prevails in Marian Merriweather. The 33-year-old nurse from Philadelphia, in a puffy red jacket, sits quietly. "I'm saving it all for the audience," she says.

"I've been singing for a long time. For over 20 years. So…it's about time. It's my time, I feel it."

Merriweather came to New York last September for a pair of funerals — her sister's husband and their mother. "And then, it just so happens," she says. "I heard about the audition." She admits that the circumstances gives the night a little extra substance. "Definitely, definitely," she says, her voice wavering a little. "Because I got a hometown rooting for me. "

She says she tried out for American Idol, but didn't make it to air. "It's a pattern, picking people for ratings — if you know what I'm saying," says Merriweather, more full-figured than, say, teenagers like the scrappy Mahiro or TV veteran MarissaAnn. "But Apollo, they give you a chance. They base you on talent, they don't base you on how big you are, how small you are. They really look at your talent. And that's why I came to Apollo and tried out. They have age limits on a lot of these competitions. Not this one."

Upstairs, the room is full and the house band jazzily vamps while comedian Capone warms up the crowd. "I saw some of y'all come in here. And y'all been practicing on your boos. Some people are just angry, 'I don't care I'm booin' every…body.'"

If and when that happens, C.P. Lacey, the Executioner will be ready. Well before showtime, Lacey is in a chilly, bare dressing room occupied by little more than a framed photo and an empty Coke fridge (he kindly leant his usual, far more cozy dressing room to tonight's special guest, Sullivan).

"I can get dressed in 10 minutes, but I like to give myself at least an hour and 30 minutes because I have to suck in all the energy of all 1,500 seats," he says. "I try to perform for people individually, if that sounds crazy. I want each person in a seat to have an experience."

Lacey is an Amateur Night veteran himself, winning seven times as a James Brown impersonator who was never booed. When renown Apollo Executioner Howard "Sandman" Sims went off to California to film the 1989 dancesploitation flick Tap, Lacey was asked to fill in for a week or two. Says Lacey, "That week or two turned into 29 years." 

Lacey never really has — or had — the butterflies in his stomach that some of the current contestants admit to. He performed for his mom and dad's friends as a child, went on to be a song-and-dance man and works as a professional celebrity entertainer in his off months — he claims to do more than 30 characters (including President Obama, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Kanye West, Diddy and recently he's added "the new Prince with Afro"). But does Lacey ever take pity for the booed and banished that the Executioner has to dispose of week in and week out? 

"Merciful feelings for them? I have to say yes," he says. "Some people really can sing, they just decide on wearing the wrong outfit. 'We don't like them gold lamé shoes — boo!' There was a girl out there, she had the most beautiful operatic voice. She was singing the most beautiful aria you ever heard. But… back then people were tuned into Z100, WBLS, Kiss FM, Hot 97. They were not trying to hear any arias. It was horrible. She's probably somewhere singing in France right now, as we speak.

"But," he adds, "gotta get 'em off! Somebody will be in my shoes the next week."

"There was a guy who came as the Phantom of the Opera," remembers Caffey about one of the most memorable boos he witnessed in his six years as producer. "He dared to wear the mask and the cape and the hat. The joy was, the people started to boo, because he was terrible, but he was hitting this high note. The siren that initiates the Executioner coming out started to go off. And he thought the band's pitch had elevated so he started singing on the pitch of the siren. Which doubled how terrible it all was."

The footage is now immortalized on one of the videos that they show at Amateur Night. "He was something like an accountant or a CPA from Boston and it was just a lark that he came down," he says. "Is he sad he ever did that."

"Everybody that comes to this stage is judged by only one thing — and that's talent."

Comedian Capone is the host these days, and he breaks down the rules. "If you like them, what you gonna do?" asks Capone, to cheers. "If you don't like somebody, what you gonna do?" he says, followed by wild boos. Backstage, hearing the crowd, MarissaAnn gets nervous. It's definitely a sound she doesn't want to hear.

"Everybody that comes to this stage is judged by only one thing," warns Capone, "and that's talent."

MarissaAnn, a 17-year-old white girl about to sing Beyoncé's "Best Thing I Never Had" at the Apollo, is admittedly "a little anxious" before she walked out on stage. She calms down once she sees the lights and some familiar faces in the crowd. As she performs, you can hear what are either some jeer-sharks starting to circle or just a handful of randos excited to boo anyone. She thinks she hears them — "I don't know what I heard" — and freaks out. She says not knowing exactly what the sounds were was the scariest part. She hits the high notes with no melisma and the crowd politely grooves along save one errant "boo!" during the quiet ending.

When she returns, breathless, to the green room, it's all claps and "you did great" and "all right." Holding a water with Ricolas dissolved in it, she feels relieved: "Adrenaline rush to the max."

Mahiro's performance followes not to long after. His moonwalks and Transformer-style moves fail to wow the crowd. After his booing, he sits, staring, panting, tired, sighing, his eyes moist with either sweat or the beginnings of tears. "I can't enjoy," he says.

His suffering isn't solitary for too long. Lucner Frederique, a mellow singer-songwriter in the Jon Legend vein who performed an original song, wandered over with some words of encouragement.

"Hey, man, I just wanna let you know you did a good job," he says. "Some people are here to boo, you know what I'm saying?... Just keep doing your thing, man. Some people are just like that. They don't really understand talent. Who are all those people? They won't have the courage to do what you do."

Later, a security guard offers the same: "You just gotta give a little support," he says. "He seems real down."

Things go far better for Merriweather, a seasoned performer who stalks the stage for a performance of Aretha Franklin's "Rock Steady" with powerful "yeeeeaaaahhhhs" and a lean into the "baby, baby" towards the end

The first time she even appears nervous is after she performs, sipping a Dasani in the claustrophobic stairwell tucked behind stage right — the audience vote isn't far behind. As the final contestant, Anthony Quarterman, does his deep-voiced best on Barry White's "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe," Merriweather bounces back and forth. Eventually what seems like a nervous tic just turns into dancing.

Merriweather is invited back on to the stage with MarissaAnn and the four other acts who survived the gauntlet. Downstairs, her significant other aims a camera at the blurry monitor. Mahiro quietly puts his coat on a hanger. Once she hears the audience's applause, Merriweather knows she's going to place. She's announced as the third place finisher and is ecstatic, jumping up and down — she gets to come back for the March 11th Show Off.

"I just secured my spot! That's all I wanna do," Merriweather says afterwards, "I got my foot in the door now! So now I got to bring the heat! I gotta shut 'em down now!

It's around 10 p.m. and she still has dinner with her sister and the three-hour trek back to Philadelphia ahead. She has to get back because tomorrow, her significant other graduates from HVAC school. But first, Quarterman, tonight's second place winner gets a hug.

"You better not ever stop," he says.

"Oh, I won't," she replies. "Never will."