by Ken Stewart
There is a question I like to ask of any friend with whom theatre and performing comes up in conversation. I query mischievously, "Have you ever met anyone who has performed at the world-famous Harlem theatre, the Apollo?" To the predictable negative reply, I respond, "Yes, you have." That becomes an excuse to tell the following true tale.
As one of several hundred volunteers for New York City's Big Apple Greeter, I was asked to escort a visiting novelist from the United Kingdom. She wanted to walk around the city's world-famous traditionally African-American neighborhood, Harlem, as part of her research for a story she was writing. I met her at her Manhattan hotel one morning (the time was arranged in advance). We took the subway uptown from midtown, exiting at 116th Street, adjacent to the campus of Columbia University. After meandering across the quadrangle, we headed farther north on foot, continuing to navigate with a combination of her good eyes and my knowledge of the city.
Arriving at 125th Street, a broad avenue which is the commercial heart of Harlem, we turned east. Almost immediately, she spotted the marquis of the Apollo Theater on the north side of that busy crosstown artery. "Oh great, can we stop there?" "Sure," I agreed. Once in the modest lobby, we learned that, fortuitously, there was a group tour of the facility scheduled in less than an hour. We had just enough time to stroll along one block of nearby 124th Street, and get back in time to join the tour.
On 124th Street, we observed the striking contrast between two portions of that one long block. Much of it was still seriously blighted with crumbling tenements and boarded-up brownstones scarred by a former era of neglect and vandalism. But the far end of the street was proudly displaying the effects of "gentrification" – sprucing up and remodeling with the new money flowing into the neighborhood.
As we were returning to the Apollo, a mob of gawking tourists was pouring out of the charter bus that had scooped them up around Times Square. We blended in with the chatty crowd as we were herded about the building, a rather ordinary-looking facility except for the celebrity portraits which surrounded us on the walls. Those were the celebrities who were vaulted to stardom by their performances at the Apollo. Many were immediately recognized by visitors: Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Redd Foxx, Jimmi Hendrix, The Jackson Five, Chris Rock, Stevie Wonder, and many others.
Our tour guide, Billy Mitchell, was a diminutive person, but a larger-than-life personality suggested a performance history of his own. At the conclusion of our walk-around, he ushered us into the orchestra of the 1,506-seat theatre space. Standing up on the stage, he presented to us, as he must have done myriad times before, the building's illustrious past going back to 1913. Then he asked who among us would like to come up to the stage and perform. Moving up the aisle with long white cane deployed, I joined about five others accepting the challenge. Each of us was invited to recite a favorite poem, tell a joke, or try to entertain our fellow visitors with some other shtick.
Once gathered in the wing, Billy asked how to introduce each of us. When he came to me holding my cane and quite obviously vision impaired, I identified myself as "Fuzzy View." (Some Forum readers will recognize the reference to the "Fuzzy Thoughts" one-liners I write for "Dialogue.") But Billy flinched at that. Apparently he felt it wasn't nice to make fun of the disabled, even if the fun was self-inflicted. I put him at ease by modifying my handle to just "Fuzzy." Billy introduced me that way, and I recited several of my original, and hopefully amusing, limericks. They did elicit giggles and then applause from that very forgiving audience.
A braille user's boyfriend sadly opined
"I have forehead acne of the bumpiest kind."
She replied, "Don't suppress it.
I want to caress it.
It's my way of reading your mind!"