The Legend of Guy Fisher and the Apollo Theater

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The Legend of Guy Fisher and the Apollo Theater
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The Apollo Theater — the venue that shaped 20th-century Black music more than any other — shut its doors in the mid-1970s and stayed closed for years. It almost disappeared for good. But a mysterious buyer purchased the theater and reopened it in 1978. According to unofficial histories of the Apollo, the new owner was a man named Guy Fisher, one of the biggest heroin kingpins New York City has ever seen. The official history of the Apollo doesn’t ever mention Guy Fisher, and we wanted to know why. Our investigation uncovered a story of ambition. Of a love triangle. Of violence. And of redemption.

 

THE LEGEND OF GUY FISHER AND THE APOLLO
by Alexandra Dole and Monica Hunter-Hart

ALEXANDRA DOLE

Most people have heard of the Apollo Theater. It’s legendary in Harlem — and around the world. What most people don’t know is that there were times when its survival was far from guaranteed. In the 1970s, the Apollo shut down for more than two years in the 1970s. It turns out the story of who saved the Apollo — and how — is just as legendary. Picture this. It’s May 5, 1978, and the Apollo is finally reopening. Harlem is thrilled. The theater’s iconic marquee hovers over the sidewalk in the misty rain. It’s lit up with the name of the percussionist who will perform that night. 

Music in: Ralph MacDonald, Calypso Breakdown

MONICA HUNTER-HART

Limousines line 125th Street between the two avenues. Waiting inside the limos are celebrities –  musicians like Nona Hendryx and Paul Simon and the model Beverly Johnson. Jet Magazine wrote that, “swirling spotlights and electric charges filled the damp night air.” But there was also an air of mystery. About six weeks earlier, Billboard Magazine had reported that, “The Apollo has been purchased by an unnamed group of individuals.” And a headline in the Amsterdam News, a Black newspaper, read, “Secrecy clouds Apollo’s new owners.” There were lots of rumors. It was said that the Apollo was now under Black ownership for the first time ever. But the facts weren’t clear.

An article in the Mar. 25, 1978 edition of the New York Amsterdam News. Found on the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database (New York Public Library card required for access).

ALEXANDRA

According to unofficial histories of the Apollo, a man named Guy Fisher bought the theater. He was one of the biggest heroin kingpins New York City has ever seen.  

MONICA

The official version of the history of the Apollo doesn’t ever mention Guy Fisher. We wanted to know why? When we looked into all of this, we found a story of ambition. Of a love triangle. 

SCOTT BURNSTEIN

It was Shakespearean, you know? It was a volcanic eruption. 

ALEXANDRA

Of violence. And of redemption.

Music out: Ralph MacDonald, “Calypso Breakdown”

ALEXANDRA

I’m Alexandra Dole.

MONICA

And I’m Monica Hunter-Hart.

Music in: Squeegee (Shoe Leather theme)

MONICA

This is Shoe Leather. An investigative podcast that digs up stories from New York City’s past to find out how yesterday’s news affects us today. In season 2, we look at New York in the 1970s. We’re going beyond the bell bottoms and disco to explore what made this decade notorious in New York’s history. A decade in which the Big Apple went by a far more sinister nickname —

NEWSCASTER

Unionized employees of New York City who face dismissal have put out a booklet describing “Fun City” as “Fear City.”

MONICA

Crime was up, and people were fleeing to the suburbs.

ALEXANDRA

One third of Harlem’s middle class was gone, leaving behind abandoned buildings…

Music out: Squeegee (Shoe Leather theme) 

NEWSCASTER

Broken families, rampant street crime, the worst housing this side of Calcutta. And the worst plague of them all: Drug addiction. Two or three years ago federal officials estimated that there were half a million heroin addicts in the United States. Half of them lived in New York City and half of those lived in Harlem.  

Music in and out: “Yes, this is the ghetto…”

ALEXANDRA

The Apollo Theater was probably the most influential music venue of the 20th century. It was where Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday made their debuts at the famous “Amateur Night.”

MONICA

And Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers danced.

Music in and out: Nicholas Brothers, excerpt from the film Stormy Weather

ALEXANDRA

Where Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown sang. 

Music in: James Brown, “Please, Please, Please,” from Live at the Apollo, Volume II

MONICA

But in the 1970s ticket sales were down. People from the other boroughs were staying away from Harlem because of crime. Black artists were going to larger venues where they could make more money. And in December of 1975 there was a shooting inside the theater. Some say that was the last straw for the owner. Soon afterward, he closed the Apollo. After that, it mostly lay silent.  

Music out: James Brown, “Please, Please, Please,” from Live at the Apollo, Volume II 

MONICA

That is, until a man named Guy Fisher bought the place. Or so the legend goes. Ask people on the street and they’ll tell you Guy saved the Apollo. 

RODNEY PEARTREE

He bought it from Frank Schiffman. Everybody in Harlem knew Guy Fisher. Everybody knew him.

ALEXANDRA

But is it like, knew him or knew of him? 

RODNEY’S FRIEND

Some of us knew him.

Music in: Squeegee (Shoe Leather theme)

MONICA

It seems everyone in Harlem and the Bronx has a Guy Fisher story. Some of them good… 

NILDA CRUZ PARTICA

Nilda: So the kids started calling him “Robin Hood.” […] Because he would help out a kid if they needed sneakers.

MONICA

Others not so good….

PHILIP DOUGLAS

And I think there was another murder as well, where this person was accused of being an informant.

MONICA

People talk about Guy Fisher the hero, the guy who gave back to his community. And Guy Fisher the villain, the one who would eventually be sent to prison. That’s the thing about legends  —  it’s hard to separate the myth from the man. The truth from the stories we tell. This is season two — New York Drop Dead. In this episode: The legend of Guy Fisher and the Apollo Theater.

Music out: Squeegee (Shoe Leather theme)

 ALEXANDRA

Guy Fisher was born in July 1947. He grew up in public housing in the Bronx called the Patterson Houses.

HANK RATTI

Guy Fisher and us, we would play basketball over there, and you know, just run and play some games. And then just, after we’d play, we’d sit around and kick it and have fun and talk stuff. 

ALEXANDRA

We got a tour of the projects from Guy’s lifelong friends, Hank Ratti and Dorrian Norris. 

DORRIAN NORRIS

And they dressed so nice back then, too. 

HANK

Yeah. I love the way we dressed in our era. I’m talking about —

DORRIAN

Alpaca sweaters. It might be 90 degrees outside, but they had their alpaca sweaters.

HANK

Yeah. You got your alligator shoes, your lizards, you know.

MONICA

They showed us the building where Guy used to live and reminisced about their childhood.

HANK

Back then, everybody knew everybody. You’re welcome into any house.

DORRIAN

Welcome into anybody’s house.

HANK

They knew you, they knew your parents.

MONICA

It was a neighborhood of Jews, Irish, Italians, and a growing number of African-Americans, Caribbeans, and Puerto Ricans. Here’s Nilda Cruz Partica. She was one of Guy’s neighbors.

NILDA CRUZ PARTICA

The projects today are black and white. Back then they were a melting pot. I mean, you know, the lady across the street, across the way, moved, and she left her things outside the apartment, if any of the neighbors wanted anything. But we were Puerto Rican. My mother didn’t know any better. And she saw a menorah, and she took it. And she put it every Christmas on our window. 

MONICA

Oh my gosh. 

NILDA

My mother just thought they were pretty lights. When I got older, I realized that my mother was the first Puerto Rican Jew.

MONICA

Guy used to come over for dinners at Nilda’s apartment.

NILDA

He was just like, sweet and funny. And, and always had a smile. And polite. He came into my house. He was always, “Mrs. Cruz, Mrs. Cruz” to my mom. You know, he never he never was a kid that you would think would wind up in trouble, because he was always very polite. 

MONICA

Guy was the oldest of 5. He looked out for his three sisters and his little brother, Wally. Guy’s stepfather was an alcoholic who beat the family. And he gambled. He kept losing the money his wife made as a nurse. Dorrian says because Guy was the oldest, he tried to fill in as a father figure for his brothers and sisters.

DORRIAN

He took his family on, you know? And to see there’s no food on the table, and the mother’s trying to get a job and it’s still not, it’s not even putting a week’s worth of food in the refrigerator. That’s, that was his pride. He loved his mother. I mean, we all love our parents, but he loved his mother.  

MONICA

So Guy started protecting and providing for his family early. Some of the other kids in the neighborhood saw him as a protector, too. Here’s Anthony Ruiz. He lived a couple of floors beneath Guy as a kid.  

ANTHONY RUIZ

I was a small kid back then. I would get bullied. And, and there was this one kid I remember, specifically, and he dec — once he decided he was going to pick on me, he decided that he was going to pick on me all the time. And I’m pretty sure it was around him that either Guy was walking in or walking out, just sort of said, you know, “Hey, man, leave him alone. He’s from, he’s from this building.”

MONICA

When he was a teenager, Guy Fisher got arrested for assault. He served two years in a reformatory for juveniles. Then, he dropped out of high school and focused on making money. He started out selling shopping bags. And then scaled up the operation. He began buying clothes around Delancey Street in lower Manhattan and up selling them in the Bronx out of the trunk of his car. Before long, he’d be selling something else. 

Music in: Lead Shroud, Blue Dot Sessions

MONICA

He met a guy named Nicky Barnes — one of New York City’s most notorious gangsters. He changed Guy’s life. Nicky Barnes would bring Guy up, and Nicky Barnes would — ultimately — take him down. 

Music out: Lead Shroud, Blue Dot Sessions

ALEXANDRA

From dozens of newspaper clippings, books, and interviews, we pieced together how Nicky Barnes rose from petty criminal to drug lord. Nicky Barnes was actually born Leroy Barnes. He grew up in Harlem. His father was also said to be an alcoholic. Nicky started running the streets early. He started using drugs as a teenager. By age 14, he was a full-blown heroin addict. In his 20s, he went to prison. That’s where he got clean.

TOM FOLSOM

His sort of, quote unquote, “recovery story” was really about — that he was able to kick it so he could sell it. […] You know, can’t get high on your own supply. 

MONICA

That’s Tom Folsom. He ghost-wrote Nicky’s autobiography. Prison was also where Nicky learned how to create a drug syndicate. He was a voracious reader. He got a hold of a copy of The Prince by Italian philosopher Niccolo Macchiavelli. It’s known as the mafia’s handbook. And he befriended an Italian mobster. 

TOM F

What he’s telling Nicky is, is that you can use tenets of Black nationalism to create your own mafia, your own Black mafia, right? So for, for what Catholicism is to the Cosa Nostra, you can use Black nationalism for what Nicky would call The Council.

ALEXANDRA

The Council. That was the name of the syndicate Nicky created when he got out of prison. It was made up of seven independent drug dealers. Guy Fisher was one of them. Nicky wouldn’t deal drugs personally. He just directed the operation. Court documents show that the other Council leaders bought the heroin in bulk. Then, they distributed it to people under them. The underlings did all the selling on the street. And the leaders took an oath. Here’s Tom Folsom again. 

TOM F

They said at the beginning of each meeting was something to the effect of, you know, “Treat my brother as would I treat myself.” Right? That was kind of the, the code of the, of Nicky Barnes’ Council.

ALEXANDRA

“Treat my brother as I treat myself.” That meant loyalty above everything else. Folsom says Nicky viewed The Council as a kind of surrogate family he always wanted.

MONICA

The New York Times reported that gradually, The Council took over “from the Italian gangs which had controlled the Harlem drug traffic until then.” By the mid-70’s, Nicky was driving around in Maseratis and Mercedes Benzes, and strutting around Harlem like he owned the place. The papers described him as “short but solidly built.” He was always well-dressed in tailored Italian suits.  

TOM F

And really charming, too, you know, like, a really charming, really smart guy. I would say he was, he was sociopathic. I didn’t get the sense of a lot of remorse for what he did. He had basically, had poisoned Harlem with heroin.

MONICA

As legend goes, Nicky was the inspiration for the famous Jim Croce song, “Bad Bad Leroy Brown.”

Music in: Jim Croce, “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” 

MONICA

If Nicky was the baddest man, he was dealing the baddest drug — heroin.

Music out: Jim Croce, “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”

ALEXANDRA

Heroin is one of the most addictive drugs. It’s an opiate, or painkiller. It brings on a rush of pleasure and relaxation by flooding the brain with dopamine. And once a user is hooked, withdrawal feels like hell. Which starts a vicious cycle. Heroin has been around since 1874. It used to be the “miracle drug” for everything from migraines to cramps, and you could get it over the counter. Over time, people got worried about the drug’s long-term effects. And so in the 1920s, the U.S. made it illegal. But heroin never really went away. It just went underground. 

MONICA

The so-called “heroin epidemic” took hold of the United States in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

NEWSCASTER

Heroin. It’s the reason you put bars on your windows. The reason you’ve got a big dog.

MONICA

Federal estimates say that between 1969 and 1974, the number of heroin addicts nationwide more than doubled, to over half a million. There were an average of 70 drug-related deaths per month in New York City in 1971. That was also the year President Nixon declared the war on drugs.

 NEWSCASTER

America’s public enemy #1 in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new all-out offensive.

MONICA

But Nixon’s war had ulterior motives — allegedly. One Nixon aide later said that the White House “had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. […] We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA. And New York brought in new mandatory minimums for drug dealing.

ALEXANDRA

When Guy Fisher joined The Council, Nicky was almost 40 years old. Guy was 23. Guy would later write of meeting Nicky, “He had everything. I had nothing.” They grew close.

TOM F

I basically think of Guy as, um — he was like, he was the golden boy, right? He was, you know, the guy that he had sort of groomed to lead the Council. It was kind of like the son he’d wanted, I suppose. I would say that, for sure.

ALEXANDRA

The Council eventually grew so big it was raking in more than 84 million dollars a year. That’s according to an undercover DEA agent named Louis Diaz. Diaz investigated The Council back in the ‘70s. He talked about it in a 2020 interview for the “American Dope” documentary series. 

LOUIS DIAZ

Nicky was the most prolific, biggest dope dealer in the United States during that period of time. Nicky was the man. He was the Al Capone of Harlem.  

MONICA

Meanwhile Guy Fisher was flashing his own cash around. He hadn’t forgotten about his childhood friends. Like Hank, who he took on a surprise trip.

HANK

We were playing basketball, and we were running and running. And then after that, we went and got sodas and stuff to drink. He got a phone call, you know, and he says, “Hey Hank, you want to come with me?” I said, “Yeah, come on. Let’s go.” Little did I know, he’s driving to the airport. We get on a flight. And next thing I know, I’m in Puerto Rico.

Laugh

MONICA

The Council hosted fancy parties and invested in property. But people we talked to said that Guy Fisher and The Council also organized Thanksgiving turkey giveaways. They handed out toys at Christmas, and held basketball tournaments that brought money into the community. If the older folks in the neighborhood needed something, like medicine, Guy would buy it for them. Here’s Guy’s neighbor Nilda again.

NILDA

Thing was that Guy would come back in the summers, and the Mr. Softee truck, he would hijack it, and buy all the kids ice cream. And he would get them drinks and…. So the kids started calling him “Robin Hood.” Because he would help out a kid if they needed sneakers or, you know, whatever. 

MONICA

But in 1974, something happened that would put an end to Guy’s Robin Hood days. At least for a while.

Music in: Union Hall Melody, Blue Dot Sessions

MONICA

He got pulled over in downtown Manhattan.

WALTER S. PUHALSKI

We stopped him because he was changing lanes without signaling. Turned out, he was using someone else’s driver’s license.

MONICA

That’s retired police officer Walter S. Puhalski.

WALTER

We placed him under arrest. We went out to take the inventory of the car. And we found a bag of money about $103,720. And he offered us the money and we placed him under arrest for bribery. 

MONICA

What did it feel like to open the car and see all of that money?

WALTER

It was just — we were used to seeing things.

MONICA

Police charged Guy with bribery. He spent the next 18 months in prison. It actually might have been the luckiest break Guy ever got — that cop pulling him over. Because while he was in prison, the DEA set its sights on the Council.

Music out: Union Hall Melody, Blue Dot Sessions

ALEXANDRA

The feds had never been able to make anything stick with Nicky.

NEWSCASTER

But in 1977, Barnes, who had been arrested 13 times on various charges, but never convicted, was indicted once again. What was his reaction to this latest indictment? He posed for the cover of The New York Times Sunday magazine. They called him “Mr. Untouchable.”

 

ALEXANDRA

Posing on the cover of the New York Times magazine   — that bravado — that would eventually mean the end to Nicky’s drug lord days. That cover story pissed off Jimmy Carter, who was now president. So much that Carter told the New York attorney general to prioritize convicting Nicky Barnes. 

MONICA

The DEA went to work. They sent undercover agents to infiltrate The Council. And they did it through Guy Fisher’s younger brother, Wally. Remember Wally — he was the youngest of Guy’s four siblings. While Guy was in prison, Wally spilled the beans on The Council.

TOM SEAR

And Wally was this wannabe-gangster. He was 19 or 20 years old. He was not a player at all in the organization.

MONICA

That’s Tom Sear. He was a federal prosecutor at the time. He was the one who collected the evidence that would ultimately convict both Nicky and Wally.

TOM S

And in a way, we the government were very fortunate that Guy Fisher had gotten arrested and gone to prison […] because his kid brother, he, Guy would not have allowed his kid brother to get involved with Robert Geronimo, who was one of the informants, or the undercover agent, Louis Diaz, he just, he was too smart.

MONICA

Wally’s mistakes ended up being the most crucial evidence that incriminated The Council. On March 16, 1977, agents arrested Nicky and the rest of The Council — including Guy. He’d done his 18 months for trying to bribe those cops. So he was out of prison and back at work, selling drugs. And now on trial.

ALEXANDRA

A journalist from The Village Voice described the scene at the courthouse. 

Music in: Sylvestor, Blue Dot Sessions

ALEXANDRA

“The 15 defendants were by and large an attractive bunch. They were all young, slim, and clean cut (except for Fat Stevie Monsanto, who was fat and dirty), and, in their spotless tube socks and bright new Pro-Keds, they looked like an unbeaten college basketball team. Guy Fisher, who was supposed to be Nicky’s most treasured lieutenant and a very tough customer, wore cashmere sweaters and shiny loafers and looked like the 1959 valedictorian at Howard University.”

Music out: Sylvestor, Blue Dot Sessions 

ALEXANDRA

This is the first case where the jury was made anonymous — for their protection. 

MONICA

Wally was sentenced to 8 years in prison. Nicky got a triple-life term. 

ALEXANDRA

But Guy actually walked away free. His lawyers argued that he couldn’t have been involved in the crimes being tried because he was in jail at the time. It was an argument that persuaded the jury — but only barely. The jury was hung. But the prosecution was satisfied.

TOM S

We knew we had less evidence against him. And we were so happy at the conviction of Barnes that it really didn’t bother us. And then, you know, normally with a hung jury, sometimes you can retry. We didn’t even retry Guy Fisher. I mean, we didn’t want to go through all that again, just for one guy, and then we had to put our witnesses on again, and you never know what’s going to happen, so….

ALEXANDRA

So they let it go for the time being. And Guy must have felt that he had a new lease on life. Guy discussed it later in an essay he wrote. “Realizing how lucky I was, I decided to give something back to my people to make amends for my past deeds.”

Music in: Billie Holiday, “Fine and Mellow,” live at the Apollo in 1945

MONICA

Before desegregation, the Apollo Theater was one of the few places where Black entertainers could perform. It became known as the theater that launched a thousand careers. There was so much talent — and so much competition. The Schiffman family owned the Apollo for over four decades. Here’s Bobby Schiffman in an interview in the ‘70s.

Music out: Billie Holiday, “Fine and Mellow,” live at the Apollo in 1945

BOBBY SCHIFFMAN

The Apollo audience is, I believe the most sophisticated and descriptive emanating audience that I have ever seen watch a performance anywhere. They demonstrate their appreciation for artistic excellence at the moment that it occurs. They are extremely vocal in their appreciation and in their displeasure.

MONICA

By the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, some of the Apollo’s fortunes were changing. Black artists could now perform throughout the city — and at bigger venues. Which meant the Apollo now had serious competition. In that interview, Bobby Schiffman also discussed the theater’s financial difficulties.

BOBBY

The maintaining of an old building is a very difficult and expensive job. The problem is that there aren’t enough major performers who can come to the Apollo, who are willing to come to the Apollo. The Apollo Theater by its very nature, demands of performers, a financial sacrifice. Most top line performers who would come to the Apollo can earn more money in one night than they can earn in the Apollo in a whole week.

ALEXANDRA

That’s because the Apollo has just 15-hundred seats. Radio City Music Hall, in contrast, can seat 6,000. The Apollo had always been financially precarious, but by the mid-70s, it was no longer sustainable. Simply put, the Apollo was losing more money than it was bringing in. It just couldn’t afford to stay open. It closed in early 1976 and stayed that way for over 2 years.

CROWD

Black Power to Black people! Black Power to Black people!  

ALEXANDRA

People were also growing frustrated that the Apollo had always been owned by white people. The Black Power movement was in full swing. 

NEWCASTER

Less concerned with integration and getting along with white people, more concerned with Black independence and Black power.

ALEXANDRA

So people were eager for the Apollo to finally be Black-owned. In March of 1978, someone did buy the Apollo. For 200 thousand dollars. They even renovated it — and put in a new sound system. And in May, it reopened. Under the new ownership, the theater had some big moments. Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali came in for a roast. And Bob Marley played an iconic series of shows just a year and a half before he died. 

Music in: Bob Marley, “Natural Mystic,” live at the Apollo in 1978 

Music crossfade: Bob Marley, “Natural Mystic,” from Survival

ALEXANDRA

The theme of those shows — according to the New York times: — “Black Survival.”

Music out: Bob Marley, “Natural Mystic,” from Survival

ALEXANDRA

So who was this new owner? Here’s where things get complicated. The word on the street was that it was Guy Fisher. And that’s what we believed when we first started researching this story.

Music in: Chad Belltini, Blue Dot Sessions

MONICA

It’s what Fisher’s Wikipedia page says, and what dozens of online blogs say, and the federal attorneys who prosecuted him…. But when we checked the Apollo Theater’s website — there’s no mention of Guy Fisher. It does mention all of the other owners. Even an Apollo documentary released on HBO Max last year doesn’t mention Guy Fisher. That got us curious. So we checked the property records. In 1978, the Apollo Theater was purchased by the 253 Realty Corporation. We couldn’t find that corporation in the state database. But we did find one name. It’s in one of the records. Elmer T. Morris. He signed the mortgage. 

A portion of the 1978 mortgage for the Apollo, showing Elmer T. Morris’ signature.

MONICA

Turns out, Elmer T. Morris is Guy Fisher’s step-brother. We’re not sure why Guy isn’t on the deed — although we wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with his drug dealing. But why would the Apollo Theater omit Guy from the official record? Especially because he would have been the first Black owner? Under Guy’s ownership, the Apollo would have a very short renaissance of sorts — but would then run into financial trouble. And as for Guy — his trouble was just beginning. 

Music out: Chad Belltini, Blue Dot Sessions

ALEXANDRA

Guy Fisher wasn’t as flamboyant as Nicky Barnes. He didn’t drink or smoke. But he definitely was a ladies’ man.

SCOTT BURNSTEIN

‘Cause he was very good-looking and very well spoken. […] He was like a Steph Curry of the streets of Harlem in the ‘70s.

ALEXANDRA 

That’s Scott Burnstein, a crime historian. While Nicky was locked up, Guy started dating a woman named Shamecca. His boss’s girlfriend. Nicky felt that it violated the code — the one the 7 members of The Council swore to live by. Nicky Barnes was married. Shamecca was his girlfriend.

MONICA

Every time we read about The Council, Shamecca was mentioned as a side piece, the woman that got between Nicky and Guy. But pictures of her showed a vibrant, beautiful young woman.

Music in: Strange Dog Walk, Blue Dot Sessions

ALEXANDRA

In one photo we found, Shamecca poses in a pair of shiny black pumps — one hand on her hip, one hand behind her head. She’s wearing  a knitted white cap and it covers her braids, which  have decorative beads at the ends. Her earrings are gold and fancy — they frame her face. And she’s glowing. She looks really happy.

MONICA

Shamecca’s birth name was Beverly Ash. She grew up in the Manhattanville Projects in Harlem. Shamecca met Nicky when she was 19. She was in college. Shamecca hung out at the Monarch Bar in Washington Heights where The Council did business.

ALEXANDRA

Larry Praylow was a young gay man from Brooklyn. He and his friends had taken to breaking into department stores to support themselves. One day they went up the Monarch Bar to sell their loot.

LARRY EBONY

So the first night we — I met her, they bought everything we had. And she said, “I want you to meet my husband.”

ALEXANDRA

The husband Shamecca is talking about — Nicky Barnes. He wasn’t really her husband, but that’s how she saw him. This was before Nicky went to prison — when he was still Mr. Untouchable. Larry says Shamecca enjoyed the lifestyle she got from associating with Nicky. 

LARRY

Shamecca had apartments that she just kept clothes in. Her shoes, her fur coats. Shamecca had a fur coat for every day of the week.  

ALEXANDRA

Larry and Shamecca became fast friends. 

Music out: Strange Dog Walk, Blue Dot Sessions 

ALEXANDRA

Larry had founded the House of Ebony. Houses were networks of chosen families for Black and Latino queer youth. They held underground drag balls. Different houses competed in categories for money and for clout. The ballroom was like a party, a performance, and a competition — all rolled into one. Larry invited Shamecca to walk in a ball. We found the footage from that night.

Drag ball applause

Music in: Drag ball

ALEXANDRA

Shamecca prances down the runway in a gold lacrame strapless dress with a little gold hat.

BALL HOST

Shamecca! Best Woman. Watch out! The foxiest chick will do the trick.

ALEXANDRA

That night, she won “Best Dressed Woman.” Shamecca was now officially an Ebony girl.

LARRY

Shamecca was a beautiful woman every day, but she was a gangsta at night. 

Music out: Drag ball

MONICA

Shamecca worked alongside The Council in the drug trade. So…. 

LARRY

Once Nicky got locked up. Shamecca was the queen of the throne. You know, you have the kingpin. Now you got the queen. 

MONICA

We wondered why Shamecca and Guy Fisher would take such a risk — start sleeping together — when they must have known that if Nicky found out, he’d be livid. Especially because according to Larry, Shamecca was in love with Nicky, or at least with his lifestyle.

ALEXANDRA

Eventually someone tipped off Nicky in prison about Guy and Shamecca. Here’s ghostwriter Tom Folsom again. 

TOM F

You’re talking about some classic kind of Machiavelli stuff. It’s like, don’t outshine the master.

ALEXANDRA

It was a love triangle that would erupt into a devastating end for Guy, and for Shamecca.

Music in: Lowball, Blue Dot Sessions 

NICKY

They were couple of friends of mine that were supposed to be doing things for me, you know?

MONICA

That’s Nicky Barnes in a phone call with a deputy U.S. Attorney. There were a couple of friends of mine, he tells him, that were supposed to be doing things for me….

WILLIAM M. TENDY

Yeah.

NICKY

And, and, they’re doing things against me, really. 

MONICA 

And they’re doing things against me, really. 

WILLIAM

Mmhmm.

MONICA

Nicky’s explaining why in 1982 he decided to turn state’s witness against the Council while in prison. 

NICKY

And I have no way to reach out to get to them and I want to get back at them, really. 

WILLIAM

Mmhmm.

NICKY

That’s my primary reason. 

MONICA

It was the only way to get back at them, he said.

ALEXANDRA

Nicky gave the government a long list of names — including Shamecca, and Guy Fisher…. Guy — who he saw as a son. Nicky even ratted out his wife. The mother of his two young daughters. Years later, in a phone interview with New York Magazine, Nicky elaborated on why he did what he did.

NICKY

As far as Guy Fisher was concerned, I said Guy Fisher, I gave him a woman of mine and asked him to look out for her. Asked him to take care of her. I didn’t expect him to start fucking her. I don’t know why he had to bone her, and then, I don’t know why the other Council members let him live after they knew he did it. When I realized that them —— had left me on the battlefield to die, you know, I just said “No, I’ll pull them motherfuckers in here with me. I’ll pull them in here with me and let them see what it’s like.” No, I don’t, I don’t regret that. I would rather be out here than to be in there with them.

MONICA

When Nicky cooperated, he spilled everything. He testified about Guy’s time in The Council. 

Music out: Lowball, Blue Dot Sessions

MONICA

Philip Douglas was a federal prosecutor in the case. In 1983, he brought Guy Fisher to trial again. Nicky and another informant testified that Guy had personally committed several murders. Nicky said that one time, in ‘76, Guy shot someone at such close range that the victim’s clothes caught on fire.

PHILIP

I remember that, because just as that testimony was coming in, one juror seemed to be physically disturbed, and we had to adjourn the trial so that she could recover, as I remember. And I think there was another murder as well, where this person was accused of being an informant, and Guy Fisher shot him while he was begging for his life.

ALEXANDRA

But the jury ended up acquitting Guy on the murder charge — all the evidence was hearsay. Neither man claimed to have actually seen the events take place. And Fisher’s lawyers argued that they both had reason to lie. But the jury did find Guy guilty of crimes relating to operating a narcotics conspiracy. And under the new drug and racketeering laws, he got the mandatory sentence — life. Philip Douglas remembers his sentencing hearing. 

PHILIP

Mr. Fisher stood up and addressed the court and he spoke to me directly and he said, “Mr. Douglas,” you know, “don’t sit waiting by the phone for a call from me to cooperate, I’m never gonna call you.” And I remember thinking, “I really don’t care.” Well, of course, you know, that’s how the government makes these kinds of cases against criminal organizations, is people cooperating. So that would have been good. But I just spent the better part of a year of my life, you know, basically seven days a week on this case, and I just, I mean, I was exhausted. And so I wasn’t like, sitting around hoping he would give a call, that’s for sure. And of course, he never did cooperate.

MONICA

When Nicky Barnes snitched, the Italian drug suppliers were furious. They blamed Shamecca. 

Music in: Lacrimose, Blue Dot Sessions

MONICA

She was out on bail waiting for her trial.

LARRY

She stopped coming to the balls and stuff. She didn’t want to be in crowds and stuff. She was just scared.

ALEXANDRA

On December 13, 1982, a man went to The Council’s hangout spot, the Monarch Bar. He wore all black except for a white mask that covered his face. Shamecca was there, sitting on a stool. The man shot her three times in the head and neck at close range, killing her. She was 27. According to court records, a hit man known to be used by the Italian mob was the shooter. Larry from the House of Ebony remembers being in Harlem for her funeral.

LARRY

They closed the streets. They had Shamecca on carriage. 

MONICA

Tom Folsom, the ghostwriter of Nicky’s autobiography, says that Nicky idealized Shamecca and was probably in love with her. But still, he doesn’t remember Nicky expressing sadness about her death.

Music out: Lacrimose, Blue Dot Sessions

MONICA

But Nicky did speak angrily about Guy, his former protégé.

TOM F

I remember one time, I had a — some fruit on the table, and he grabbed, like, a mango. And Nicky, and he started eating it, like a, like an apple, just like biting into it. And he’s like talking about Guy, and just, like, devouring this mango. And it’s like a thing that clicked in his head. And he just goes off, right? That’s when I would hang out with Nicky and he got sort of scary. When he would talk about Guy. You know, that anger was there. And then, “Oh yeah, like this guy, I could see how Nicky would kill somebody.” It’s like, “Oh, Nicky’s going off the deep end here a little bit.” You know, even though he was an old man at that point. Now, I guess that begs the question: Is this Nicky’s true feelings? Or has he built this narrative up in his head so much that it’s his justification for snitching?

MONICA

We’ll probably never know. Nicky Barnes died in 2012, while he was in the Witness Protection Program.

Music in: Luka 75, Blue Dot Sessions

ALEXANDRA

Guy Fisher served his term at a series of prisons around the country. We tracked down a fellow inmate of his. Kanan Tatro described how Guy would react when the subject of Nicky would come up.

KANAN TATRO

This is like legends stories, right? One day we in the, we in the chow hall, which is the kitchen, where you go eat right? So I’m like, “Yo, Guy, man, why you ain’t, why you ain’t eating your pizza?” He’s taking the cheese off the pizza. This what he doin, right, he’s taking the cheese — I’m like, “Guy, why you ain’t eating the cheese?” He like, “‘Cause Nicky ate the cheese. That’s why I don’t eat cheese.” So I’m like “Yo,” I asked him, I’m like, “Yo, if Nicky walked through, walked through the door right now, what you gonna do?” He like, “I’m gonna turn the other way and walk the other way.” I’m like, “You, you wouldn’t do nothing physical to him?” He’s like, “For what?” He was just more hurt. Like, he’s like, “Nicky was like a father to me. It was the betrayal for me. You know? That’s what hurt me the most. You made the rules to The Council. We all lived by your rules, and your regulation, for you to turn around and to betray everybody. And you’re trying to say, you’re trying to say like, it was like a woman at the time. Like, it wasn’t about no woman. You didn’t want to do that time.” 

Music out: Luka 75, Blue Dot Sessions

MONICA

Guy focused on reforming himself while he was in prison. He earned his associates, bachelor’s, and master’s degree, and eventually even a PhD in sociology.

Guy’s PhD degree in Sociology from Columbus University, which he earned in 2009. We also found his transcript — he got all As.

MONICA

He’s written books and screenplays. After 38 years, Fisher’s sentence was commuted in October of 2020. The judge gave him clemency because he was old, wasn’t in perfect health, and was at risk being in prison during the pandemic. And because he’d been on impeccable behavior throughout his sentence. Guy was released to his sister’s home in Florida.

ALEXANDRA

We reached out to him on social media, through his family members, and we even wrote him a letter, and  sent it the old fashioned way — through the mail.   When we spoke to some of the people he was in prison with, they showed us pictures of a smiling man with a neat salt-and-pepper Afro. This is Kanan again. 

KANAN

Coming from the inner city, and coming from single-parent households. Guy was a father figure to all of us. 

ALEXANDRA

We eventually got a phone number for Guy from one of his friends. But when we called, his sister Florence answered the phone. She is closely guarding her big brother. She made it plain: she was not going to let us speak to Guy. But before she hung up, we asked her one last question: 

ALEX

We have sources saying that he was the first black man to own the Apollo and that he bought it and renovated it. And so we checked in the records and it’s not clear, so we want to be able to report accurately, so we just wanted to know, did he actually purchase the Apollo in ‘78? 

ALEXANDRA

Florence didn’t give us permission to use her voice in this podcast, but she did answer the question. She told us the answer was all a matter of public record. Only it’s not.

Music in: Sylvestor, Blue Dot Sessions

ALEXANDRA

Elmer T. Morris of the 253 Realty Corporation eventually declared bankruptcy in 1981. When we looked him up, we learned that he was a police officer in upstate New York. It turns out, the whole time, he’d been working for the Council. He also went to prison. Soon after the bankruptcy, a Black man backed by a group of private investors purchased the theater for around $200,000. His name was Percy Sutton. He was a prominent civil rights lawyer who had once represented Malcolm X, a politician, and now he was becoming a media executive. Sutton is on the Apollo’s history website.

MONICA

Today the Apollo Theater is controlled by a non-profit foundation. To save itself from closing yet again, it had turned to the government for help in the 1990s. We reached out to the Apollo to ask about Guy. Their director of PR and communications wrote: “thanks for reaching out, but we will pass on this opportunity for now.”

Music out: Sylvestor, Blue Dot Sessions

MONICA

Guy Fisher’s place in the history of the Apollo is a clear omission from the record. Every other owner dating back to 1938 is listed on the foundation’s website. But for the years 1978 to 1981, there’s no mention of the 253 Realty Corporation. It merely states that there was “new management.” Scott Burnstein, the crime historian, thinks the Apollo probably doesn’t want to be associated with Guy.

SCOTT

They’re trying to run from this history, that’s pretty much undisputed by anyone that is in the know. It’s like the rumor in junior high that, you know, it’s like a secret that’s not really a secret.

ALEXANDRA

One thing is for sure: Guy Fisher’s legacy definitely lives on in pop culture — especially in rap music. He’s mentioned in over a dozen songs, and it’s always in positive terms.

MONICA

On social media, we found countless “Welcome home Guy Fisher” posts after he was released from prison. It was like people were celebrating the return of a hometown hero. No one mentioned the drugs, the violence much. Or it was glossed over: “He was no angel, but…” or “He had his little troubles or whatever…” There’s one rap that really captures that feeling — 

Music in: Pusha-T, “Alone in Vegas”

ALEXANDRA

— that idea that someone can be two things at once.

MONICA

There’s a line from an old movie that says when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

PUSHA T

I let you into my diary to admire me

The make up of this man, I let you see the higher me

The self righteous drug dealer dichotomy

I’m drawing from both sides, I am Siamese

They’ll do everything in their power

Stomp near the stove when you’re rising like flour

Music volume lowers

Movie quote in: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

CARLETON YOUNG

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Music volume raises

PUSHA T

Make your cake fall when you threatening their tower

First time being rich could be a common man

The Guy Fishers had the blueprints and diagrams

We just took what we needed and we built on it

Lord forgive me for the blood that I spilt on it

Music out: Pusha-T, “Alone in Vegas”

MONICA

Shoe Leather is a production of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. This episode was reported, written and produced by me, Monica Hunter-Hart. 

ALEXANDRA

And me, Alexandra Dole. Joanne Faryon is our executive producer and professor. Rachel Quester and Peter Leonard are our co-professors. Special thanks to Columbia Journalism Librarian Kristina Williams, Columbia Digital Librarian Michelle Wilson, Michael Barbaro from The Daily, civil rights attorney Ron Kuby, Madeleine Baran and Samara Freemark from In the Dark, Emily Martinez and David Blum from Audible, Susan White from Garage Media, Professor Dale Maharidge, Feven Merid, Elize Manoukian (Ma noo kee an), Rachel Pilgrim, and Josh Lash. Additional sound mixing by Peter Leonard. 

MONICA

We’d also like to thank the people who generously gave us their time. Especially Hank Ratti and Dorrian Norris.

ALEXANDRA

Special thanks to Chad Mark.

MONICA

Shoe Leather’s theme music — ‘Squeegees’ — is by Ben Lewis, Doron Zounes and Camille Miller. Other Music by Blue dot sessions. To learn more about Shoe Leather and this episode go to our website shoeleather.org. To stay up to date on the latest Shoe Leather happenings, follow us on social media. We are on facebook at facebook.com/ShoeLeatherCast and on instagram and twitter @ShoeLeatherCast.

 

Alexandra Dole

Alexandra Dole is a reporter and audio producer pursuing an M.S. from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Alexandra plans to continue working in longform narrative podcasting. A lover of the arts, she has also studied at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in NYC and holds a BA in nonfiction creative writing from Columbia University. Find her on Twitter @alexandradole.

Monica Hunter-Hart

Monica Hunter-Hart is a dual degree student at Columbia earning an M.S. from the Journalism School and an MIA from the School of International and Public Affairs. She plans to continue working in audio journalism and to investigate white collar crime. Before graduate school, Monica was a news writer in New York City, worked at the International Rescue Committee finding housing for refugees, and spent a year in Turkey teaching English on a Fulbright grant. Find her on Twitter @mhunterhart.

© Monica Hunter-Hart and Alexandra Dole 2021. To contact the authors of this podcast, please reach out by email. Monica: rp2645@columbia.edu; Alex: eam2775acd2105@columbia.edu

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