The Apollo Turns 80: Secrets From the Theater's In-House Historian

Billy Mitchell literally grew up at the Apollo. One of 14 kids in a poor family from the South Bronx, Mitchell remembers his mom one day sending him to borrow money from his aunt, who lived across the street from the Apollo in Harlem. She wasn’t home, so he walked the block in the summer heat, until the owner noticed him and put him to work running errands for the talent. 

He worked with some of the biggest names in the business, but cherishes most the family atmosphere. “James Brown would check my report card,” recalls Mitchell, now 64. “And if it was good, he’d give me money.” Both Brown and Marvin Gaye helped pay his way through college.

“I didn’t understand the magnitude of what I was witnessing when I was getting started,” says Mitchell. “Guys were dressed to the nines, looked good, smelled good — and the dancing was incredible...Except Gaye. That’s one black man who could not dance.” Brown, he says, “always had the best band out there. I’d hear from people who were docked pay for messing up a chord. Mr. Brown would yell, because he knew every chord, every note.”

In its 1960s heyday, the place was routinely packed. “The lines would go out the door and left to the corner of Adam Clayton [Powell Jr. Boulevard] and then go up four, five blocks from there,” recalls Mitchell. “Performers did five shows a day, six days a week. Tickets would cost $3.50-$3.75 for the better seats.” Artists “would be here all day long,” he says. “They would cook in their dressing rooms, and nap there, too. Flip Wilson used to have a cot in this little cleaning room where he’d get dressed. He’d hang his suits up on the pipes overhead.”

Mitchell takes pride in what the theater represents. “Over the years, the Apollo’s audience gained a reputation for being brutally honest in their assessment of talent,” he says. “Performers knew they had to step up and bring their ‘A’ game whenever they got on this stage.”


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