Legends are Made

Showtime at the Apollo makes a stop at Patriots Theater with a pool of talent hand-picked from the Trenton area.

By: Jim Boyle
Story: Where Stars are Born


TimeOFF photos by Phil McAuliffe
Merlin Hawkins plays the bottles in an audition original enough to advance him to Amateur Night at Patriots Theatre in Trenton Feb 27.

   More than 100 aspiring stars trickled into the sign-up room of the Patriots Theater at the Trenton War Memorial on a cold January evening. After registering, they sat patiently until they were led to the backstage area in groups of 10. One by one, each performer took the stage before an audience of two and had less than a minute to make a great first impression.
   The large pool of hopefuls all vied for a chance to become a part of the legacy that is the Apollo Theater. For a second year, the landmark in American culture is sending its signature Amateur Night on the road, landing at the Patriots Theater Feb. 27. But before the anticipated show, it was up to Vanessa Brown and fellow judge Joseph Gray to weed out the wannabes from the gonnabes.
   "A lot of people will come out and say, ‘My mommy said to come out and do this so here I am,’" says Ms. Brown, coordinating producer of Amateur Night. "We find the very serious artists who know that this is not a game."

Anita Ferrer and Frank Cangelosi patiently wait for their turn in front of the judges.

   The open call for auditions brought out a diverse group of talented performers, but only 14 were chosen to return for the big night. The lucky few include various singers, rappers and dancers, some as young as 7 years old, all competing for a $1,000 first prize and an invitation to travel to Harlem and perform at the actual Apollo Theater. It’s difficult to predict who will win, but one man in particular will certainly be recognized among the night’s most memorable acts.
   Merlin Hawkins took the stage early in the evening, carrying four empty beer bottles. After sticking his index and middle fingers in each one, Mr. Hawkins cued the music and began clinking the bottles together in time with R. Kelly’s "Step in the Name of Love." It was strange and unique and entertaining enough to advance the 62-year-old Trenton resident to the final competition.
   "I’ve been playing the bottles since I was 12, 13 years old," says Mr. Hawkins, who lived in North Carolina until 1964. "I was working at this restaurant, and the lady would bring trays of bottles to people waiting outside. When they were finished drinking, they would throw the bottles on the ground. My job was to pick them up before any cars came driving by. There were two loudspeakers on the corner of the building playing James Brown, and when I picked up the bottles, I would clink them together, and it sounded to me that it was with the music."

East Windsor resident Jennifer Rodriguez gives a fine effort with a rendition of "Get Here," but the 14-year-old couldn’t get past the initial selection process.

   For most of his life, playing the bottles was mostly a parlor trick, something to amuse Mr. Hawkins’ friends. He performed in front of an audience once during a high school social, when he and two of his friends, a saxophonist and a pianist, played The Coasters’ "Charlie Brown." Now a semi-retired worker for a water company in Haslett, he decided to give the Amateur Night auditions a shot.
   He’s going to have some formidable competition for the first prize, however. Perhaps the stiffest comes in the form of Carrie Petit Compere, 25, who sang "To God Be the Glory" with her husband, Jerry, accompanying on piano. One of the final acts of the long night, Ms. Compere’s performance managed to bring Ms. Brown to her feet.
   "I was so nervous going in there," says Ms. Compere. "I heard some of the other performances, and they were so good. After we were finished, a couple of the stage workers rushed up and said she had not clapped for anybody the whole time."
   She initially signed up for her husband, a professional musician with the True Servant Worship and Praise Center in Hamilton, but Ms. Compere decided at the last minute to join him. An after-school teacher for the Young Scholars Institute in Trenton, she hopes to turn her vocal talents into a full-time career. For now, Ms. Compere, who spent two years at Westminster Choir College, spends her free time singing with the church choir and performing at various special events, most recently a concert for the United Negro College Fund in Princeton.
   "We’ve been working at this together for five years now," says Ms. Compere, a mother of two. "Either way, if we win or lose, this will be a stepping stone. I’ve never done anything of this magnitude. It’s a great opportunity, and I’m taking it for all it’s worth."
   If Ms. Compere happens to win and advance to the Harlem theater’s stage, she could join the ranks of such legends as James Brown, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder, all of whom got their starts at the Apollo. One of its most recent discoveries was R&B princess Lauryn Hill, who placed second at Amateur Night in 1988. It’s a long-honored tradition that began when Ella Fitzgerald made her debut at the inaugural Amateur Night in 1934. But first, of course, she had to rub the Tree of Hope.
   Before the Apollo Theater opened on 125th Street, the Lafayette Theater — between 131st and 132nd streets on Seventh Avenue, also known as the Boulevard of Dreams — was Harlem’s premier venue for African-American entertainment. Outside the building stood a tree that many performers believed held good luck. When the city widened the streets, many trees were removed, including the Tree of Hope. Ralph Cooper Sr., director of Amateur Night at the Apollo, bought one of the pieces being sold as souvenirs, put it on a column pedestal and placed it stage right. Since then, every performer at Amateur Night rubs it for good luck.
   Of course, some could rub the Tree of Hope all night and not be saved from the talent-savvy but merciless Apollo audience. They’ll let you know beyond a shadow of a doubt whether they love or hate you. But if they hate you, watch out. Their cascade of boos brings out another long-standing tradition: the executioner, a.k.a. the Sandman, who will also be at the Patriots Theater Feb. 27. Dressed in a colorfully garish costume with broom in hand, the Sandman quickly ushers off the offending victim. It’s a fate worse than any vitriolic diatribe Simon Cowell could fire off on American Idol. It’s also a fate that 21-year-old rapper Arafat is not concerned about.
   "I watched the Apollo on television," he says. "I know the atmosphere. The only thing to get adjusted to is the size of the audience."
   Like Ms. Compere, Arafat sees the upcoming competition as a chance to get noticed and to further his rap career. Likewise, a loss will not discourage his ambitions. When not working at the Harrison Career Institute, Arafat works on his songs, doing some recording at Dramatic Records in Trenton and the occasional performance at the Conduit, also in Trenton. Last year, he opened for Jaheim at Sovereign Bank Arena.
   "Everybody wants to be a star," says Ms. Brown. "They want to be the next Pharrell (Williams) or Jay-Z. Culturally, the Apollo is the place to be. We are definitely the pioneers of finding new talent, before ‘Star Search’ and ‘American Idol.’ It’s a great place to cut your teeth."
Showtime at the Apollo on Tour appears at the Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, West Lafayette and Barrack streets, Trenton, Feb. 27, 8 p.m. Tickets cost $22-$35. For information, call (609) 984-8400. On the Web: www.thewarmemorial.com