The power of words
Spurring a state investigation of the Apollo Theatre with a series
of editorials he co-wrote, Michael Aronson, AB85, has reason
to say that journalists can make a real impact on society.
Led by Aronson and Jonathan Capehart, the six-member editorial
board of the New York Daily News launched a campaign in April 1998
to save Harlems legendary theaterwhere such stars as
James Brown, Gladys Knight, and Pearl Bailey launched their careers.
This April, the series won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for editorial
When Aronson and Capehart visited the once splendid theater, which
has been state-owned since 1982, they found broken seats, a falling
marquee, hanging wires, and boarded-up doors. The theater was open
for shows only once a week. So they began investigating: they made
phone calls, researched the theaters finances, and read some
200 pages of lease and license agreements. I learned the importance
of reading original texts as a student at Chicago, Aronson
recalls, and the lesson stood him in good stead: I pulled
out some key facts from the documents.
Those key facts, added to the theaters condition, prompted
the editorials. The newspaper charged the leader of the Apollos
Apollo Theatre Foundation, U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel, with
mismanagement, noting that his friend Percy Sutton, host of the
syndicated TV program Its Showtime at the Apollo, was profiting
at the theaters expense. Sutton, the editorials revealed,
had failed to pay the Apollos standard rental fee25
percent of the shows revenueinstead paying only $200,000
of the $4.4 million he owed.
The Pulitzer board probably liked our editorials because
the mismanagement of the Apollo entails various factorsracial,
cultural, and politicaland they not only stated opinions,
but they effectuated change, says Aronson. Sparked by the
editorials, the New York states attorneys office launched
an investigation, currently under way. The Empire State Development
Corporation, the Apollos landlord, has urged Rangel to quit
the board. Meanwhile, Time-Warner is considering adopting the theater.
Aronson feels that the Pulitzer is but one achievement for the
editorial board. The ultimate success of our work would be
if the next time we walk by 125th Street, instead of seeing a decrepit,
closed-up building, we would walk past a sparkling, economically
active theater that pumps money back into Harlem.J.P.