Billy Mitchell, the resident historian and official tour guide for the Apollo Theater in Harlem, started working at the famous music hall in 1965, when he was 15. As he tells the story, his mother sent him from their home in the Bronx to borrow money from his Aunt Essie, who lived across the street from the theater. His aunt wasn’t home, so he hung around the stage door and wound up fetching coffee for that evening’s acts — a simple errand that over time led to a larger career.
These days, Mr. Mitchell, 62, leads several tours a month, usually on Sunday, then spends the rest of the day exploring places in the city where black history runs deep and relaxing with his wife, Barbara, their daughter, Brittney, 23, and the rest of his extended family at home in Canarsie, Brooklyn.
THE GIG Normally on a Sunday, I give my first tour at 11 a.m., so I jump in the shower and I’m out the door by 9. I’ll get to the theater early, grab a little coffee and find out the name of the group that’s coming in that day. I always have the schedule, but I never know how many people it’s going to be. The tours are scheduled to last an hour, but they’re always longer, like an hour and a half. I really get into them, and people love them, too. Most people don’t know the history of the theater, but I paint a picture of the Apollo and how it fits into the history of Harlem.
ONSTAGE The “amateur night” segment is the best. People love getting up onstage. They’ll sing a song, or dance, or tell a joke. Pictures are allowed, so they can brag to their friends that they performed at the Apollo. We visit the dressing rooms and see the wall of signatures. Anyone who’s been to or performed at the Apollo in the last 20 years has their name on the wall — from Pee-wee Herman to the president of the United States.
COMMUNING WITH ANCESTORS After my tours are done, I make my way down the West Side to the African Burial Ground. It’s at the Chambers Street exit on the highway. I go to Broadway and park my car somewhere and then head toward the monument. I walk around for a while and just kind of meditate and say a prayer for my ancestors. It’s something I do every week, usually around 4 p.m.
FAMILY AWAITS After that, I cross the Brooklyn Bridge and head home. I go up Atlantic Avenue and then up Vanderbilt to Eastern Parkway. Usually, my in-laws are there by the time I get back: my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. It’s like after 4:30 now, and they’re all talking, blah, blah, blah. So I go into the bedroom and just relax for a few minutes.
DINNER’S ON Then my wife says, “You ready to eat?” The food she makes varies. My wife watches all these cooking programs and experiments on me and my daughter. She cooks up fried chicken, or macaroni and greens. It’s all delicious.
CHILLING OUT After I eat, I go back to my room and chill out a little more because I don’t want to be in the living room with the ladies talking. When it’s time for them to go, they take out all the plastic containers they brought and fill them with the food my wife cooked. She cooks enough stuff to last us all, all week.
CLEANING UP Once they pack their food, I walk them to their car. I say, “You ladies get home safe, blah, blah.” Then I help my wife clean up from the mess she made. My wife makes a mess. She cooks very good, but, man, she makes a mess. I empty the garbage and then go back to the bedroom or lay in the living room and watch some sports. That’s around 8:30. At 11, I take a shower and it’s back in bed for the night. Nothing extravagant.
- Apollo Uptown Hall Announces Free Presidential Viewing Party at the Apollo Theater (harlemworldmag.com)
- Apollo Holds Auditions for 2013 Amateur Night Season (harlemworldmag.com)
- Apollo Theater Kicks Off Music Café 2012-13 Line-Up (harlemworldmag.com)