Billy Mitchell’s first encounter with the Apollo Theater came about entirely by chance. It was 1965 and he was fifteen, living in the South Bronx with his mother and eight of his fourteen siblings. The family had been reunited after an eviction from their Mount Vernon home five years prior, but now Mitchell’s mother was struggling to keep her children clean and fed. As the oldest, Billy was sent off one afternoon to borrow grocery money from an aunt who lived on 126th Street.
Taking shelter by the theater’s back door, a hungry and thirsty Mitchell was found by Frank Schiffman, the Apollo’s original owner. Terrified, Mitchell assured the man he wasn’t causing any trouble, just waiting for his aunt to come home. Instead of shooing the kid away, Schiffman asked if he’d like to make some money while he waited.
“I got so frightened, because I didn’t know what he was talking about. You’re told, ‘Don’t accept money, gifts, or toys from strangers,’ right?” Mitchell reflects from the theater’s empty stage. He is, on this Saturday in January, decked out in a three-piece gray suit. “He saw the look on my face, and he said, ‘Son, I’m not gonna bother you. I’m asking you, do you wanna make some money? There are people inside rehearsing and they’re so busy, they’re gonna need somebody to go get their food, their coffee, their shoes shined. If you run these errands, they’ll give you a little tip.’ ”
Mitchell’s one-off errand turned into a weekend and occasional after-school gig — chicken dinners for the Temptations, who liked to dance while placing their orders; lunches for comedian Flip Wilson, who would slide his requests under the door of his dressing room. “I got to make money, lots of money, because they all felt sorry for this poor little dirty kid. So they would put five dollars, ten dollars in the hat,” Mitchell says. “I started meeting all these stars that really, really influenced me and told me [about] the importance of education.”
It was Apollo mainstay James Brown who really set him straight. “I was failing all my subjects because of my low self- esteem,” Mitchell says. “I was one of those kids that never raised his hand in class and asked the teacher to explain.” Education was already on Soul Brother Number One’s mind (his song “Don’t Be a Dropout” was released in 1967), and he asked the young Mitchell to bring in his report card. “He said, ‘If you don’t start raising your hand in class, I’m sorry, son — you’re not allowed to come here and run errands anymore,’ ” Mitchell recalls. “I thought the world was coming to an end.”
He panicked at the thought of losing the new life the Apollo had given him and his brothers and sisters. “As a result of James Brown threatening me to not be able to come back here, I started raising my hand in class and I got the knowledge I needed,” he says. “My grades went up immediately.”
Somewhere along the way, between getting shoes shined for tips and auditioning performers for Amateur Night on his own, Mitchell became the Apollo’s institutional memory. He summons its history through personal anecdotes; the mention of certain artists will send him into a full-on performance. Mitchell doesn’t just tell you you’re standing where Nat King Cole once stood, but croons “Unforgettable” to you in perfect Cole pantomime. His passion for history isn’t limited to the confines of the theater, either. Referring to the Apollo staff’s recent outing to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, he offers details of Wall Street’s origins, then of the African Burial Ground mere steps from the Exchange — the largest colonial-era cemetery for immigrants of African descent. Later, he is just as quick to point out that the Apollo has never been an all-black theater: “In my experience [at the Apollo], I found out the truth is that every race, every culture, every ethnic group, has expressed their culture here — white people, black people, Latinos, Asians, Indian. However, the African-American experience has probably been the most dominant.” And because of the theater’s segregated origins, it’s important to Mitchell that its multicultural history be known.
The neoclassical landmark was originally erected as the whites-only Hertig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater in 1914, only to be shut down in the Thirties when infamously conservative New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia refused to renew most burlesque theaters’ licenses. “He thought it was becoming too vulgar, too risqué, that it was promoting immoral behavior,” Mitchell says.
The venue re-emerged as the Apollo on January 26, 1934; actor Ralph Cooper, known for his James Cagney–like roles in black cinema, was tapped to fill the stage with talent and immediately established the theater’s mission of supporting performers of color. The first show he produced was an all-black revue called Jazz a la Carte featuring the Benny Carter Orchestra, ballet dancers, opera singers, and other sophisticates. The white audience, which had been expecting a minstrel show (despite the Harlem Renaissance having already reached its peak, but that’s another story), was astonished. “They saw black people reading music, playing the violin, dancing ballet, and singing opera. And they were like, ‘We didn’t know they could do this stuff!’ ” Mitchell says. “We [had not been] allowed to be shown [in Hertig and Seamon’s]. It came as a surprise — and they wanted to see more.”
The interest from outside the neighborhood led Cooper, in October of 1934, to move his popular WMCA program, the Harlem Amateur Hour Radio Show, from radio to the Apollo stage — in the process creating the country’s first ever live talent competition. The first female contestant to win what came to be known as Amateur Night was a teenage Ella Fitzgerald, who was slated to compete as a dancer just a month after the competition’s inception. But Fitzgerald never delivered her routine. “On the night of the show, during the rehearsal, she saw these other two girls dancing,” Mitchell recalls. “She thought they were so much better than her.” But Cooper wouldn’t allow the deflated Fitzgerald to walk away. He asked her what she could bring to the stage instead. “She said, ‘Oh, some of my family friends say I can sing a little bit.’ And she went out there — she started singing a song and was so nervous that [she] forgot the words. She started scatting,” Mitchell says. It was a star-making moment for one of the greatest jazz singers of all time — and served early on to establish the Amateur Night stage as a place that launches legends.
The list of people who braved the Apollo’s raucous, ruthlessly critical Amateur Night audiences charts a history of breakthrough black performers in entertainment: Billie Holiday, the Isley Brothers, Luther Vandross, Dionne Warwick, D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, Dave Chappelle, Jamie Foxx, and Tracy Morgan are all alumni. Even the Jackson 5 took a crack at Amateur Night when Michael was only nine years old. Many return to perform later in their careers, paying the place back for the crucial momentum it provided them: Last June, Hill performed at the New York premiere of the Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, joined by r&b singer and fellow Amateur Night veteran Jazmine Sullivan, who performed Simone’s “Baltimore.”
Despite its illustrious reputation, Amateur Night has struggled to compete in the age of America’s Got Talent, Last Comic Standing, and American Idol. There’s a lot of money out there, a lot of ways to gain more exposure faster. Harlem’s gentrification has played a part in that decline over the past decade, too, as the surrounding community has become less interested in the show than it was in the Sixties and Seventies. Marion J. Caffey, Amateur Night’s producer since 2008, has made it his mission to extend the Apollo’s reach beyond the neighborhood. “I think the Apollo, itself, is a worldwide brand,” Caffey says. “Why [weren’t] we advertising to the world?” He condensed the program to a snappier two hours, revived the emphasis on the personality of the Apollo itself, and reinvigorated the audience’s pivotal role in the proceedings. With a larger marketing department focused on promoting Amateur Night and refreshing the Apollo’s image as a New York–wide institution, the 1,500-seat venue now seems to be on the rebound, especially as it is discovered by tourists visiting the city. Its audience on any given Wednesday, Caffey says, hails from “Russia, Bangladesh, Japan, and India to Philadelphia to 127th Street.”
“Our audience is what makes us unique, in that they get to be so vocal: Are you good or are you gone?” Caffey says of the Darwinian environment that prevails on Amateur Night, when an unimpressed crowd can get a performer yanked in the middle of a song or mediocre stand-up routine. Dismayed by the passive turn the audience had taken in the early Aughts, he implemented a party vibe that starts before the show, adding a DJ to warm up the crowd. “The live experience is what we can offer that no one else can, from the ushers welcoming you into the theater, to passing under the chandeliers and the murals of all the legends and stars that have come through the Apollo,” he says. “When the DJ comes on at 7:30, there are people dancing in the aisles.”
But if Caffey is the man bringing everyone together — the multigenerational and cross-cultural audience, the performers, the Apollo crew — in both body and spirit, it is Mitchell who embodies the history of the place. His knowledge of the underlying mythology and untold truths of the Apollo, and passion for spreading it through the tours of the venue he guides throughout the week, keeps one of New York’s most valuable legacies clear and vital.
Ralph Cooper’s tutelage was instrumental to Mitchell’s enduring knowledge. “We’d be in his dressing room talking about things that happened in the Apollo before I was born,” Mitchell says. “And for some reason, God made me soak up all this info like a sponge, not realizing I would need it.” He kept on learning about the theater and the neighborhood long after Cooper was gone: “I don’t just talk about history; I talk about the truth. Part of the reason I created the tour was because there wasn’t any information out there about the Apollo and its history. It was a little bit contrary to what Ralph Cooper used to tell me. I learned these things about Harlem that were different. I grew up thinking only black people performed at the Apollo, because that’s what it was labeled.”
One thing’s for certain: Those looking to fudge the truth or the history better be on guard. “Sometimes, tour operators doing walking tours in front of the Apollo Theater, they have people from other countries and things. They’re out there giving their narrative on the history of the Apollo and Harlem,” Mitchell says. “I’m standing there going, ‘Where the hell did they get that from?’ These guys, they know me. They’ll see me and say, ‘Hey, Billy, how you doing? Hi, Mr. Apollo.’ But they do not speak while I’m there.” Perhaps they’d rather not compete with the man whose education began on the theater’s back doorstep. Or maybe they realize that, just like the losers on Amateur Night, if they’re no good, they’re gone.