Apollo to honor Michael Jackson _ decades after $1,000 gig that helped launch his career

By Verena Dobnik, AP
Sunday, June 28, 2009

Apollo Theater to pay tribute to Michael Jackson

NEW YORK — The Harlem theater that helped launch Michael Jackson’s career plans a star-studded musical memorial on the same stage where he and his brothers once did 31 shows in one week, for $1,000.

“They couldn’t pay their hotel bill,” recalled Bobby Schiffman, whose family owned Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1967.

That summer, after the Jackson 5 won the Apollo’s Amateur Night competition, Schiffman says he gave them the gig that covered the bill so they could go home to Indiana.

Michael Jackson fell in love with the famed Apollo, standing in the folds of the musty maroon stage curtain to study electrifying performers like James Brown. Even then, the 9-year-old was already the top singer among the five brothers.

Forty-two summers later, with both King of Pop and the old curtains gone, a refurbished Apollo will honor Jackson in a series of programs.

Starting Tuesday at 2 p.m., the landmark theater will stage a special public tribute, with eulogies delivered under the marquee by the Apollo Theater Foundation’s president and CEO, Jonelle Procope, and others. The Rev. Al Sharpton will lead a moment of silence at 5:26 p.m. — the time on the East Coast when Jackson was pronounced dead Thursday in Los Angeles.

Fans crowded in front of the Apollo in response to the news.

Inside on Tuesday, DJs will spin his music, accompanied by video tributes. And on an outside wall on 125th Street, Harlem’s main thoroughfare, mourners will be invited to write down their thoughts about Jackson’s life and sudden death.

On Wednesday night, Apollo’s weekly Amateur Night will be dedicated to Jackson. Music director Ray Chew is to perform a medley of Jackson hits and audience members will be encouraged to “moonwalk” during the soul-train dance line.

The theater plans a star-filled memorial tribute later in July.

Jackson last visited the Apollo in 2002, invited by former president Bill Clinton for a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.

He had become a troubled, gossip-wounded pop star, with only memories of the hot August day in 1967 when his father Joe loaded the five brothers into an old Volkswagen van and drove them from home in Gary, Ind., to Harlem.

Their Amateur Night success eventually led to television interviews and a Motown record deal. But promotion costs drained the family’s finances.

“We signed a contract with them — 31 shows as one of the underacts for the main show, for $1,000,” says Schiffman, with option “to play them again for $1,500 a week, and another for $2,500. That was good for a beginning act in those days.”

Schiffman, now 80 and living in Lake Worth, Fla., says the Jackson 5 were “wonderful.” But Michael was “the most wonderful.”

“He was the most charming, lovable young man you could imagine,” Schiffman said. “He would melt your heart. Everyone fell in love with him.”

When the week was up, the Apollo wanted the Jackson 5 back, but “we could never get them back.”

They would meet Diana Ross, and with “Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5,” their debut album, “they took off like a skyrocket,” says Schiffman.

Over the years, as his music topped the charts, Jackson made New York City his professional and private playground.

While filming “The Wiz” in 1977, he and sister La Toya lived in a high-rise apartment on the East Side, and were often seen at the Studio 54 disco alongside celebrities like Liza Minnelli.

And in 1984, with Jackson’s career peaking after the release of “Thriller,” his CBS record label threw him a posh, A-list party in the city where his musical dreams first took flight.

will not be displayed