Community Gathering Committee Hosts Historic Tour of the Apollo Theater
by Grace B., Community Gathering Committee co-chair 2018-19
A group of 40 parents, students, and siblings, met at the Apollo on Friday, October 26, 2018, for a tour of the historic theater guided by Mr. Billy Mitchell (Mr. Apollo himself). The group was led to front row seats in the theater, while our tour guide took to the stage to give us a colorful look back into the past when the Apollo was the heart of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond.
We heard about the many famous singers, Broadway stars, artists, and comedians who started their long and illustrious careers at Apollo’s legendary Amateur Night. The story of the Apollo and the artists who began their careers in the theater is deeply intertwined with the life story of Mr. Apollo, who told us he has worked with the theater for over 50 years. We were clearly in good hands; Billy Mitchell was engaging and knowledgeable about all things Apollo. Our history lesson included such details as the origins of the name Harlem (from New York’s Dutch heritage) to the beginnings of the Apollo as a burlesque house, and then its rebirth as a theater in the 1930s for a less risqué line of entertainment. We learned that back then African Americans were allowed to perform but could not sit in the theater. We also learned that the former burlesque décor is still under the current wall decor. Unique to the Apollo is the Tree of Hope, a tree stump that is passed down to each owner and is expected to be touched by each artist before they perform on the stage. The Tree of Hope is part of a legend which began with a group of men who used to stand under a tree near the theater seeking work. They all believed that the tree was the source of their eventual successes. When the tree fell, a piece of the stump was brought into the theater to continue the practice of rubbing the stump for good luck before performing. The St. Bernard’s group learned that booing during a performance is allowed at the Apollo if the artist forgets to touch the Tree of Hope before performing. The audience is also expected to boo as an indication of success (or lack thereof) during the performance.
A favorite moment for the aspiring comedians, singers and back-up dancers within our group was when Mr. Apollo recruited performers to come on stage. Mr. Apollo led the “Mamacitas,” brave St. B’s parents, in channeling their inner Diana Ross with the song “Stop in the Name of Love.” We were delighted with jokes from Charlie, Denver, and Jacob, three of our younger boys, and captivated by Kennedy’s (a sibling) rendition of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” We were then led through the staircase where every famous person who has performed or visited the Apollo has left their signature (Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, the Obamas, LeBron James, to name a few) and down to the dressing room area for photo ops. The tour ended back on stage where we all got to take more pictures, and for those who were not brave enough to perform, take one last look out over the now empty seats in the beautiful and intimate Apollo Theater. All in all, it was a fun afternoon that provided behind-the-scenes glimpses into one of New York’s great cultural icons. The tour was well suited for the Community Gathering Committee’s theme for this year – Our Community, Our Stories.