As part of our Q&A series, Morningsider brings you exclusive interviews with neighborhood “Insiders.” This week, we interview Billy Mitchell, tour director and historian of the Apollo Theater.
Nicknamed “Mr. Apollo,” Billy Mitchell has been working at the Apollo for nearly five decades and has held almost every position available in the theater. From starting out running errands, Billy has worked as an usher, managed the gift shop, coordinated Amateur Night and more. He has acted as tour director and historian since 1991, when they created the Apollo Historic Tours.
Originally from a family of 14 children in Mt. Vernon, NY, Billy became friends with stars through his work at the Apollo, even developing a friendship with mentor James Brown, who encouraged him to get a good education. Billy discusses his journey to becoming “Mr. Apollo” in his recently released autobiography “They Call Me Mr. Apollo,” and we had the pleasure of speaking with him in this exclusive interview:
The actual building was built in 1914 and was first called “Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater,” which housed an all-white burlesque show, however in the early 1930’s it was shutdown as burlesque was banned by the mayor at the time. The building was bought in 1934 by new owners who renamed it “The Apollo Theater” and brought in the first all black review called “Jazz a la Carte.” This show became the talk of the streets of New York and the owners asked the producer to bring in another show – the Harlem Amateur Hour radio show, which soon became the Amateur Night at the Apollo.
2. Both a city and state landmark, the Apollo Theater is a legend of Harlem. What do you think sets the Apollo apart from other historic venues in Manhattan?
Well, it’s a cultural thing. It’s the pride and the epicenter of black culture in the world and our audiences are the best in the world. They’re always very diverse and it’s just been that way for years. The performers who come to Amateur Night know that the audience is diverse, so if they get the stamp of approval at the Apollo they know they can take their act out into the world and be successful.
I saw Michael Jackson and his brothers there the first time they did the Apollo. Also, Lauren Hill was great because people weren’t really liking what she was doing, but every time they booed her she would just sing louder and eventually she sang at the top of her lungs and everyone started applauding. And one of the first winners of the competition in 1934 was Ella Fitzgerald.
We just had our annual spring benefit and fundraiser which was awesome – we inducted Lionel Richie and Etta James into the Legends Hall of Fame. Coming up on July 15 we’re taking Amateur Night to London. We’re taking our winners over there to compete against other contestants from London and they’re going to be performing at a very popular London venue called Hackney Empire.
5. Aside from the Apollo, what is your favorite Harlem hot spot?
I like the Red Rooster a lot. It’s a great new restaurant and the food is excellent. There is also a chain of smaller restaurants called Manna’s Soul Food restaurant which has a number of locations in Harlem and serves a really good, buffet-style meal.