It’s Still Showtime At The Apollo

The stay of execution granted the Apollo Theater by its creditors last week is the latest twist in the shifting fortunes of Gotham’s big live houses.

Besides the troubles at the 68-year-old Harlem landmark, recent changes at the Ritz, Roseland, Pier 84 and Madison Square Garden suggest that now even established venues of more than 1,200 seats are refashioning themselves almost as rapidly as the city’s ephemeral nightclubs.

“It is conceivable that the longterm future of the Apollo may well be as a nonprofit institution with the ability to receive tax-free contributions from individuals, foundations and others,” says Percy Sutton, owner of the 1,500-seat theater.

Meanwhile, Madison Square Garden is poised for the September reopening of its 5,600-seat Felt Forum, closed for renovations since January ’89. Forum execs have made it no secret that they’re out for big game – hoping to bag biz from 5,874-seat Radio City Music Hall (VARIETY, April 29). Management is tight-lipped about coming attractions, but sources say weeklong stints by Barry Manilow and James Taylor are likely.

Radio City itself threw in the towel on its Pier 84 venue last month. After some 20 years of concerts, the 8,000-seat Pier has been converted into an amusement park, with occasional oldies acts. Radio City Music Hall Prods. lost a reported $3 million over the past two years there.

Also going through changes is the 3,400-seat Roseland ballroom, which Radio City and other promoters attempted to operate as a concert facility. Splashy, well-publicized shows there by Prince and Duran Duran failed to generate followups, and Radio City found itself at loggerheads with Roseland’s going commitments to nightclub and disco activities.

“It did not have as predictable a calendar as we would have liked,” remarks Scott Sanders, exec producer for Radio City Music Hall Prods., which pulled out in 1989. Now, except for the rare concert, operators Hillary and Larry Ginsberg continue managing Roseland as a dance-oriented venue.

And the 3,000-seat Ritz, by all accounts one of the city’s most successful concert facilities, recently inked a pact with Thunderdome Enterprises to maximize its potential, undergoing a $1 million overhaul and adding dancing (with a featured corps of house hoofers) after concerts and on non-concert nights.

But it has been the rollercoaster ride of the Apollo over the past several weeks making the headlines. The theater, purchased by Sutton’s Inner City Broadcasting Corp. in 1981, showed losses of $2.4 million in 1990 and is expected to lose another $2.1 million this year.

Sutton has blamed part of the Apollo’s problems on its location – 125th Street in Harlem – an area that many New Yorkers associate with crime. The hall normally does not do much business on weeknights, except for the Wednesday night amateur contest.

The theater was given $2.9 million in 1985 by Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co., the only private lender involved in the venue’s reopening. To finance the renovations and create state-of-the-art recording facilities, the state’s Urban Development Corp. (UDC) provided a $7.67 million loan, now grown to $9 million with accrued interest. The Harlem Urban Development Corp. (HUDC) invested an additional $1.4 million; under the Federal Urban Development Urban Grant the Apollo received another $1.5 million in loans.

Now, Sutton says the agreement with UDC and Manufacturers Hanover to place a moratorium on the Apollo’s debt will buy time to rally performers and corporate sponsors around the ailing edifice.

The Apollo now is officially owned by the Apollo Theater Redevelopment Corp., a subsidiary formed by UDC and jointly owned by UDC and HUDC. The new subsidiary, in turn, leases the theater back to the operators, the Apollo Theater Investors Group, for a period of 24 years – after which, when the state investment is fully repaid with interest, the group will own the landmark outright.

Celeb help began arriving last week with the April 29 premiere of Miramax’ “A Rage In Harlem.” Proceeds went toward the Apollo’s debt; Miramax had previously handed Sutton a $50,000 check. Benefits are planned, including an annual Harlem Film Festival.

State and private lenders were also riding to the rescue last week, agreeing to a six-month moratorium on all interest, principal and lease payments owed to them, thus effectively bringing to an end the threat, previously announced by Sutton, that the venue would have to close by June 1.

Sanders at Radio City, who maintains that all the shifting will ultimately result in an even more competitive climate, says the company hopes the Apollo can pull through. The Music Hall itself narrowly dodged a bullet in 1978, when the state gave the building 12 months to work out fiscal problems or shutter. A massive $5 million restoration program began and, in 1979, Radio City Music Hall Prods. was born.

Sanders now says, “If New York responds to the Apollo’s situation the way it did to Radio City in the late ’70s, then they’ll have a wonderful opportunity to continue to be an active and vibrant part of music history.”

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