‘Mr. Apollo’ Billy Mitchell Has Seen It All, From James Brown to Michael Jackson

Dan Kloeffler, Mary-Rose Abraham and Arthur Niemynski

Like any street smart kid would do, Billy Mitchell was about to run from a stranger who offered him a chance at making a fast buck in Harlem. But before he could make an escape, the offer was explained: shine shoes, get coffee and run errands for the people that worked inside the building Billy was leaning against.

One of 14 siblings in a struggling New York family, there wasn’t much for Billy to think about. Take the job, help the family, stay out of trouble, and along the way, become synonymous with one of the world’s most famous stages: The Apollo Theater.

Billy Mitchell is “Mr. Apollo.”

That sidewalk job interview happened in 1965, between Billy and The Apollo Theater’s operator, Frank Schiffman. At the time, The Apollo was booking a “who’s who” of acts, including James Brown, The Temptations and The Supremes. Big names with big demands. And Billy would become the man, waiting in the stage wings, who would tend to every whim. He made sure B.B. King’s band had hot meals waiting for them after a show, and went grocery shopping for comedic pioneer, Moms Mabley. For a kid with showbiz dreams, it was a plum opportunity to see behind the curtain, all the drama and sweat that went into making a star shine.

But from coffee runs and shoe polish, Billy’s role at The Apollo has stretched beyond celebrity gofer to booker, gift shop manager, tour guide and now ambassador. That first job as a teen turned into a nearly five-decade work love affair with The Apollo, rightfully earning him the unofficial moniker, “Mr. Apollo.” He’s given a tour to first lady Michelle Obama, watched a young Michael Jackson steal the spotlight from his brothers, and chatted backstage with Paul McCartney. Away from the camera’s view, Billy has been witness to some of The Apollo’s legendary moments.

And yet, despite a lifetime of brushes with celebrity and fame, the passion for his work and love for The Apollo is unequivocal. Every time he begins a tour or recalls the early days of scrapping for tips, he gets that excitement of a 15-year-old seeing that iconic stage for the very first time.