They say the legendary Apollo Theater is where stars are born and legends are made. James Brown considered it so much a second home that his body was brought to the Apollo before his funeral. It was the springboard for music legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Patti LaBelle, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and so many more. The theater highlighted African-American performers, but later included such popular artists as Dave Brubeck, Buddy Rich, Stan Getz and others. The first place the Beatles wanted to see when they came to America in 1964 was the Apollo, and Paul McCartney refers to it as the “Holy Grail.” We recently took a tour of the legendary Apollo Theater, and here are ten secrets we found backstage.
10. The Apollo’s Best Kept Secret
Billy Mitchell, Tour Director and In-House Historian, is probably the best kept secret of all. Originally sent by his mother to pick up money from an aunt who lived across the street from the Apollo, he was approached by Frank Schiffman, owner of the Apollo, who asked him if he would like to make some money. He began running errands for entertainers like Flip Wilson, Moms Mabley, Ray Charles, and the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Billy was 15. The year was 1965.
We’re sure he knows more secrets than he is willing to share, but in sharing a few he recalls how Flip Wilson use to sometimes sleep over night under the stage. He had a cart-bed and chest of drawers where he kept his clothes, and he would hang his wet suit on the pipes to dry in time for the next day show. Billy would see a sightless Ray Charles gambling in the alley behind the theater. The 1980s brought with it a different audience to Apollo’s Amateur Night. Mike Tyson would, on occasion, throw hundred dollar bills from his box seat down onto the stage to the contestants. Billy remembers Little Stevie Wonder when they were both 15, and he remembers a nine year old Michael Jackson performing with his brothers on Amateur Night in 1969. He’ll tell you that he owes his own success to James Brown, who took an interest in making sure he applied himself in school in his early years, and later helped with his college tuition.
The building has undergone a series of renovations over the years. Billy made sure to get a piece of the original stage floor and a brick from the original foundation. Both pieces are in a frame hanging in his office. His book, They Call Me Mr. Apollo, is filled with antidotes from his adventurous life at the Apollo. He also shares these experiences when giving historic tours at The Apollo. When asked if he believes there are spirits roaming the building, he will tell you that he feels their presence every time he enters. Dream Big, he will tell you. Dreams do come true.