For 20 years, Jonelle Procope served as president and CEO of the Apollo Theater, taking the historical Harlem, New York landmark from times of financial hardship to an age of renewed vigor and prosperity. At the end of June, Procope will step down, leaving Essence Communications executive, Michelle Ebanks, as her successor.
“It’s been a privilege and an honor,” Procope told The Associated Press (AP), “In many respects, I think I take more away than what I gave. It really has made me a whole person.”
Procope goes on to share how she protected The Apollo and helped to build it into what it is now — the largest African American performing arts organization in the country.
Charles E. Phillips, chairman of the Apollo’s board, credits Procope with turning around the once bankrupt theater, where legendary stars like Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, and Dinah Washington have performed. In a statement, Phillips comments, “Jonelle has led the Apollo through an unparalleled period of growth, […], forged partnerships globally, strengthened the Apollo’s finances, broadened a uniquely diverse audience, and navigated the institution through a challenging pandemic.” Nearly $80 million to complete a renovation and expansion of the theater by 2025 has been raised during Procope’s tenure, with the bulk of the money coming from donations, including $15.7 million from the city of New York and a $10 million state grant.
John Goerke, director of guest experience at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, adds that the preservation of the historic theater has been among the top priorities in American music history. Significant for helping to launch the careers of legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Lauryn Hill, the Amateur Night, which still runs today and was showcased on the “Showtime at The Apollo,” series, is etched into the fabric of Black history and its future.
Procope’s vision for the Apollo Theater manifested itself when she had just started on the board alongside opera legend, Beverly Sills. Sills was the chairwoman of Lincoln Center and referred to the Apollo as “the Lincoln Center of Uptown.”
“[…] we all understood what she meant,” Procope said. “And the question was: Why shouldn’t there be a performing arts center for Harlem and the Uptown community? So that was always a vision.”
Turning that vision into reality began with the creation of the Apollo Performing Arts Center, with the first phase opening last year with two new small theaters to hold small concerts and theater workshops.
The finances of The Apollo were the next challenge to overcome. With America becoming less segregated, the 1,500-seat main theater was not able to compete economically for concerts from major Black stars that had the ability to fill massive arenas like Madison Square Garden. The Apollo began losing millions each year and eventually went bankrupt in 1984. The theater became a nonprofit in 1991, managed by the Apollo Theater Foundation, but as recently as 2002, it continued to struggle with financing ambitious shows.
Procope, a former corporate lawyer, took over in 2003 and strategically began the journey of turning things around. The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone provided the theater with one of its first major grants, allowing Procope to hire a team that would be integral in creating a new business plan that balanced high arts entertainment and commercial programming.
“We were able to gain the confidence of the public and the philanthropic community,” she said. “We began to get grants from what I would call ‘blue chip foundations’ — Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, Sherman Fairchild (Foundation), and a number of others. That, for me, showed the confidence that they had in the Apollo leadership and what The Apollo was doing.”
Procope is excited about the upcoming expansions for The Apollo that will include the creation of a cafe in the lobby, where community members can gather each day, even when no shows are taking place in the theater. Expected to open in 2025, that expansion will formalize a Harlem tradition– gathering at the theater to grieve and celebrate the lives of major performers that pass away. Recently, following the death of Tina Turner, and past years, following the deaths of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Michael Jackson, the theater was the place the community congregated to and found solace in each other.
“The Apollo and its marquee have become synonymous with those moments — when people don’t know what to do with their grief, so they’ve turned to The Apollo,” Procope said.
The Apollo will turn 90 in January, and Procope says that the theater has become a “beacon of hope” for Harlem once again. She does not take stewardship of that hope lightly, mentioning that she waited to step down until she was sure it was safe.
“[The Apollo] has had its fits and starts, but it has endured,” Procope adds. “And what I do know for sure is this time, it’s here to stay.”