Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Apollo Theater: 125th Street by Frederick Douglass Blvd

Taking a historical tour of the famous Apollo Theater given by "Mr. Apollo" himself, Billy Mitchell (who has had a connection with the Apollo that spans over 40 years) is a one-of-a-kind experience.  If you can plan a little ahead of the time and reserve a spot on a scheduled tour (Apollo Tours), it is really is worthwhile.

The tour starts off with a very personal introduction of everyone on the tour; Billy introduced me as his "sister from another mother (LOL!)."  He makes everyone feel welcome and then starts the tour with a monologue about his history with the Apollo, the theater's history, the history of burlesque and theaters and the history of African Americans in NYC.

He then started to get the group engaged.  He asked each group to send up representative performers to sing, dance, tell jokes, etcetera.  If one chose, one could actually rub the "Tree of Hope Stump" (see my rub for good luck at left) and perform "live at the Apollo!"

After a handful of amateur performances, we went on stage and got a performer's perspective (see right).  Then we got to see the wall of fame which includes the signatures of almost all of the visitors to the Apollo in the last 10 years (if you look closely, you may be able to make out Barack and Michelle Obama's signatures--see below left).  Then we took a peak at the back stage dressing rooms (most were in their original condition--other than the addition of through the wall air conditioning units). 

Billy shared with us that most of the famous recent performers like Sting, Wynton Marsalis, and Beyonce invariably wanted to use the old dressing rooms (rather than the updated ones) to feel connected with all the old legends like Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, and Aretha Franklin, who have performed at the Apollo throughout its history.

Toward the end of the tour, Billy spent some time describing the collages of the innumerable celebrities who have performed at the Apollo (see right).  This part of the tour was fantastic, with Billy and several of the older touring visitors singing along to the homage of all the unforgettable songs sung here.  It is truly amazing how many stars like Billy Holiday, Tony Bennett, and Ella Fitzgerald were discovered here on the "Amateur Night At the Apollo," which started over 77 years ago under African American producer and radio host, Ralph Cooper. 

Please make a trip to visit the Apollo, whether it is to catch a performance or take a historic tour.  You're bound to get a memorable experience.  And remember that just down the block is the Studio Museum of Harlem--you can make this a Harlem two-fer visit!

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