"Amateur Night" at the Apollo, now 80 years young

Wayne Brady and 13-year-old keyboard prodigy Matthew Whitaker perform at the Apollo Theater. CBS News

It's an talent competition that's been around for some 80 years -- long before reality TV. Not all the amateurs who participate go on to stardom, but many of them do, and proudly say they got their start at the Apollo Theater. Anthony Mason is our ticket inside:

As a dentist in New York City, Dr. Matthew Hashimoto is an artist in other people's mouths. But he's also an artist with his own.

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Courtesy Apollo Theater Foundation
He has another identity: the other Dr. Hashimoto made his debut at Harlem's Apollo Theater two years ago.

Going up on stage, he said, was "intimidating."

He entered the Apollo's "Amateur Night" competition . . . and won.

"And after winning, and realizing that I'm part of this history at the Apollo, and seeing the other names that are on that list -- I still can't believe that it happened," he said.

The list of other "Amateur Night" winners include Billie Holiday, the Isley Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, and the Jackson 5.

Ella Fitzgerald was one of the first winners of "Amateur Night" in 1934. Her prize: $25 and a week's work.

Dick Parsons, chairman of the Apollo Theater Foundation, said "Amateur Night" began around 1934. "It's the oldest continuing amateur hour, amateur night, I think, in entertainment. And it's still part of the Apollo legacy now."

The 1,500-seat theatre on 125th Street opened as an entertainment mecca for Harlem's black community in 1934, and quickly became an incubator for African American talent.

Long before "American Idol," the Apollo's "Amateur Night" gave birth to the slogan, "Where stars are born and legends are made."

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In an undated photo the Marvelettes perform at the Apollo Theater in New York City.
Courtesy Apollo Theater Foundation

Gladys Knight was 15 when she and the Pips first played the Apollo. "We had heard so much about it," she told Mason. "It had a life all its own. It was [known] worldwide.

"We were so proud. We started off being the opening act because we didn't have a record back then. Well, 'Every Beat Of My Heart' had just come out. And it was flying up the charts. But we were an opening act and we didn't have but two songs! We did 'Every Beat Of My Heart,' and a song that the Drifters used to do called 'What You Gonna Do.'

"I can't believe we did that!" she laughed. "But we did. And that was it."

Knight took the stage again this month, as the Apollo celebrated its 80th birthday.

"What was it about this theater?" Mason asked.

"It was a proving ground," Knight said. "Because you learned so much here. They didn't just put you on stage; they critiqued you, and they gave you what you needed to get better.

"And that's how the Pips got into the dancing. And from there we just went. And before we knew it we were headlining. But I give that thanks to the training that they gave us right here at the Apollo."

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