The Apollo Stages at The Victoria Theater, the first physical expansion of The Apollo, opens February 1
The Apollo Theater is one of the world’s most iconic music venues, with artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, The Jackson 5, and Lauryn Hill launching their careers at the Harlem institution’s famed Amateur Night. Appearing on that historic stage remains a rite of passage for budding performers from all around the globe.
Michelle Ebanks, who was named president and CEO of The Apollo last year, is no stranger to making history herself. As a high school student in Miami in the 1970s, she and her brothers were the first Black students to attend Gulliver Preparatory School—and Ebanks went on to be elected class president.
Ebanks later attended the University of Florida and worked for Time, Inc., eventually becoming CEO of Essence Communications. Her publishing-world connections led to the opportunity to run The Apollo, the largest African American performing arts organization in the U.S., which this month sees its first physical expansion with the opening of The Apollo Stages at The Victoria Theater; later this year, the original space will close for its first-ever full-scale renovation.
While she acknowledges that a lot of responsibility comes with shepherding the future of such a culturally important institution, Ebanks had plenty of encouragement to take the gig—from none other than long-serving Showtime at the Apollo host Steve Harvey. “I sent him a text, and I said, ‘Steve, I may have the opportunity to become president of The Apollo,’” she remembers. “And he just, in all capital letters, said, ‘YOU MUST DO IT.’”
On bringing people together:
“The experience integrating Gulliver Prep really opened my world. There were some difficult moments, but I generally felt very well accepted: I was president of my class, captain of every sports team I was on. I’ve enjoyed experiences where we come together as a human race, and I’m interested in what brings us together, not in what divides us. One of the aspects of The Apollo that I was drawn to was that it really appeals to everyone—every race, every gender. You find such a shared human experience in joy, in music. That’s why I had such a visceral reaction to this institution.”
On running a cultural treasure:
“I walk into this historic venue, and I’m just reminded of how lives were changed and our culture shaped by what happened on the stage. It brought Black America into your homes, and you saw dimensions that had never before been seen or understood or appreciated. I am still in disbelief that I have the opportunity to say that I’m sitting in this seat today. The Apollo is a living, breathing monument to the best of us, and I have the privilege, the honor, to be a part of that evolutionary arc.”
On the enduring appeal of The Apollo:
“My oldest son, a senior in college, sent me a text yesterday and said, ‘Can I get a ticket for a friend and myself to come to Amateur Night?’ And I thought, How wonderful—this next generation, they want to see Amateur Night. We spend so much time on our phones, with social media, so to sit side by side with someone you don’t even know and laugh and enjoy a performance is very special.”
On live entertainment after the pandemic:
“Consumer behavior has been forever transformed because of the pandemic, and the opportunity for us is to offer hybrid experiences where we can leverage the intimacy of this venue—with 1,500 seats and an audience that is unlike any other—but also capture that content and distribute those performances. So we are modeling an omnichannel entertainment experience that focuses on quality content that’s live at The Apollo, where you can enjoy it in this intimate venue, or in your living room, or on your phone as you’re moving from point to point.”
On listening to your team:
The advice I gave myself stepping into The Apollo was, Take the time to understand; listen and learn from people who have been here and have been serving. This is an incredible team that cares deeply about The Apollo and made it what it is today, and I needed to make sure that I listened and understood what was being explained to me before I made any decision, changed anything. I believe that’s critical, and I believe those first four to five months, really listening, served me well.”