Today I got to meet (and sing with) Mr. Apollo aka Billy Mitchell, the Tour Director/In House Historian/Apollo Ambassador, at the one and only Apollo Theater in Harlem. To say that Mr. Mitchell was a treasure trove of information regarding all things Apollo would be a woeful misrepresentation of the term. Billy Mitchell is a walking, talking embodiment of the Apollo Theater. It was a pleasure to learn about this historic landmark through his lens.
I’ve been on many a tour in my life, but never has a tour guide broken into song, acted out parts of his story, or made me gawk in amazement as he shared his 53 years on staff at the Apollo. As this was my 1st time to the Apollo Theater I had a great deal to learn.
It was news to me that the theater was originally created as a segregated burlesque house in 1914. It launched a trend of burlesque theaters throughout NYC and became a catalyst for bad behavior in the men folk. Hmmmm…
To quell this bad behavior Mayor LaGuardia shut down these venues across the city in 1932. In 1934 new owners took over and re-branded it the Apollo Theater in honor of the Greek god Apollo. The entertainment hook was a variety of black performers sharing their talents with an all white audience. Later came Jazz a la Carte and then talent night. The latter landing on discoveries like: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, and Tony Bennett! Amateur night still exists and takes place every Wednesday at 7:30pm. I am definitely eyeing my calendar so I can grab my group and go.
The theater houses 1538 seats and the stage has been host to the who’s who of the talent world who Billy was only too happy to regale us with, his favorite being Taylor Swift. He was also proud to show off the theater’s signature wall that read like a who’s who of who is who.
I got the impression that our Mr. Apollo was the theater’s one and only tour guide. Which means he has given this tour too many times to count. But his enthusiasm and love for this theater shone through in his eyes, his every word and story and made us love him and the Apollo theater all the more. His warm and welcoming world view is what the world needs more of right now.
Fair warning: this is an interactive tour so don’t get too comfy in that glowing red theater seat of yours. At some point during your tour Billy will simulate Amateur night and ask for volunteers from the audience. As I have zero self control for that type of thing, up went my hand and on went my body to this stage of mythic proportions.
My fellow volunteers and I did not know quite what to expect. We huddled together wondering what it was we had gotten ourselves into. As Billy explained.. We could dance! We could tell a joke! We could sing! Anything! My friend Courtney opened the show demonstrating her whistling prowess. Robin, Amy and Jennifer were a singing trio. Jaime closed the show by organizing a Rockettes line up. Me, I went with one of the very first show tunes I knew by heart: The Sun will Come out to Tomorrow from Annie. My 10 year old wish of singing that song on a stage finally was granted!
I might have been yelling more than singing, but hey, when opportunity knocks, you answer the door.
For information on the tour and to score some magical time of your own with Mr. Apollo click here. Thank you Jaime for masterminding this very special tour. Let’s go back soon!