Last month, the Apollo Theater kicked off its 75th anniversary season by announcing a wide-ranging program of performances, projects dedicated to the venue's history and opportunities for the community to interact with the legendary space. One person closely associated with the Apollo is Billy Mitchell, its in-house historian who has been behind the scenes at the Apollo for decades.
We spoke to him about his own history with the theater and its evolution. This weekend and next, the Apollo will be open for free "Open House" tours (Saturdays, 2/21 & 2/28 at 12-5p.m. and Sundays, 2/22 & 3/1 at 2-7p.m.)—Mr. Mitchell will be giving the tours with his imitable insights and tidbits.
How long have you worked here?
It'll be twenty five years as an adult. As a teenager, I didn't work for the Apollo Theater but I worked for the Apollo. By that I mean I was an errand boy, I was a gopher. I was the kid who ran all the errands for the people that performed here. Getting their meals, their coffee, their clothes.
How did you get involved? Did you go to a lot of shows?
I'm from Mount Vernon, New York but I had relatives that lived in Harlem. I would visit my relatives and one day I just went and stood backstage at the the Apollo Theater, just hanging out, until the owners said “Hey kid, what are you doing here?” I said “I'm not doing nothing, mister.” and they said “You want to make some money?” Now being from a small town, I didn't know what he was talking about. At first I was a little apprehensive, I said “No, I don't want to make any money.” He said “No, I want you to run errands for people. Go get their meals, and they will give you tips.” So I started doing that on weekends and holidays.
Soon the words got out that this kid would run errands for all the stars, so I made it my business to get here on the weekends, and I made tips. I'm from a family of fourteen children, so any money I could bring in to put food on the table and clothe myself... sometimes the money I brought in here was the difference between me getting a new pair of shoes, a new shirt, or even getting my hair cut.
James Brown took such an interest in me that he would give me extra large tips to ensure that I got new clothes, that I got my hair cut. He also insisted that I buy a book every time he gave it to me because he wanted to see to it that by reading, my speech would get better. He said that one of the things he was disappointed in was that he didn't get a good education, so he told me to read. By reading to improve my speech I become more articulate, and now I make my living speaking, which was all due to the influence of James Brown.
Who are some of the people that you've really enjoyed seeing perform here?
Back in the Sixties, there was a tour called the Motown revue. This consisted of all the Motown acts in one show, performing here at the Apollo. Imagine this. Gladys Knight and the Pips, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson Five, The Contours, Junior Walker and the All Stars—all on one show. You can't get those people together nowadays. These were the type of shows that were done here at the Apollo. They put on five shows a day, six days a week back in the sixties. They were here from twelve noon to twelve midnight.
In between shows there was some kind of newsreel shown, or some kind of advertisement, but you could be here all day long without the security and ushers putting you out after every show. Sometimes I would stay here all day long, all night long. My parents didn't know where I was because there were so many of us, but they knew I was out trying to make a couple of bucks to bring home. That's always been part of my thing, to help take care of my family.
How did you become the historian here?
It's an unofficial title, because I've been here longer than anybody, and I created the tours for the Apollo Theater, and I dedicated almost three years of my life researching, interviewing, anything that was Apollo, I digested. Literally digested, I slept it, and I did this so that when I did do the tour I knew what I was talking about, not guessing. I spoke to the elders in the community, my grandparents, my parents used to attend shows at the Apollo Theater. I cross-referenced facts that I saw in books, and things like that. There's nothing about the Apollo Theater that I don't know, but I'm learning stuff every day.
What's one thing that you think people don't know about the Apollo that you think people would love to hear?
The building itself wasn't always called the Apollo Theater. The building was originally an all-white burlesque house. It was called Hertig and Seamon's New Burlesque Theater. When burlesque was outlawed in the early 1930's by then-mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, new owners bought the building and they renamed the building The Apollo Theater. When people think of the Apollo Theater they think of African American culture, but there was a time when black people were not allowed in this building because of segregation.
At that time, Harlem was a community where we were all separated depending on where you ethnic group lived. The West side of Harlem was for our Irish brothers and sisters, the East side of Harlem was Italian and Latino, Central Harlem was Jewish. Black people weren't up here in Harlem in large numbers like most people would think. We were actually located downtown near the World Trade Center area, near new York City Hall, and even in certain parts of Central Park. The fact that we were in those locations was almost forgotten until 1991, when they were digging down in the World Trade Center building and they found the African Burial Grounds. And that's when people remembered that blacks were down in those locations because they found about fifteen to twenty thousand bodies of the african slaves who were responsible for building the infrastructure of new york, forcibly.
What do you think of the way Harlem is changing today?
Personally, it's bittersweet. People who have lived in this community all their lives, landlords are finding ways of getting some of them out. They're warehousing some of these buildings, they're raising the rent so that people who have lived in these buildings all their lives can no longer live in it. That's progress. As far as the rezoning, new businesses are moving to Harlem, etc. I have to explain to people that this community was a community that was very diverse.
So that others are moving in, and that people who have been here a long time that are moving out, that's just the way things are. When people takes it personally it becomes a problem, because they don't know the true history. But that's America, we're a melting pot. Your ancestors lived here, my ancestors lived here, why can't their great-great-grandchildren come back and live in these same areas?
What do you think is ahead for the Apollo's next 75 years?
The future looks so bright. We are going through a multi-phase renovation. We've done some things already, the facade of the theater is only four years new, the marquee is new, we have new seats, we have a new stage, there's another floor underneath the stage, we now have educational programs, community outreach programs, things that were never done here years ago. We're just so proud, we've come a long way.
What do you think of the artists that play here that aren't traditionally associated with the Apollo, like Bjork and Cat Power?
I love that artists that would never come here or have never been here before are coming. We've had Annie Lennox, we've had Morrissey, the Strokes, Elvis Costello, Norah Jones, Korn...groups that would have never come here are now coming to the Apollo Theater. We've had Rod Stewart, Tom Jones. I personally welcome it.
The fact that they are now understanding the importance that they Apollo represents. There was a day last summer when at 8:30 in the morning there was a tap on our front door and a security guy went to the door, and lo and behold, there was Paul McCartney and his daughter. They wanted to come inside, so the security guard let them inside and took them on a little tour. We get business from all over the world: France, Italy, Japan, Australia, Spain, Belgium. From everywhere, we get business.
How often do you give the tours?
The tours are done every day, three times a day, sometimes including Saturday and Sunday. I'm the only one who does them, I'm here everyday, I'm very passionate about this history. I want to make sure that the actual truth about what the Apollo Theater stands for is told to the public. There's so much speculation and so much generalization about this theater and I want people to know the truth. Come do a tour. We have an open house for two weekends at the end of February where we're open free to the public. Starting at noon, February 21st, 22nd, then February 28th and March 1st. So come to the Apollo Theater, get a free tour, hear some music, learn about the history of the theater.