It spans 200 years, is showcased at theand includes several items from the Queen of Jazz herself, Adelaide Hall – but , Leon Robinson’s collection of black theatre memorabilia, actually began life in a London bookshop around 1986.
In the third instalment of our interview with Leon, he talks us through how he began his collection and what his ultimate item would be…
What was your collection criteria at the start?
Ask any collectors the reason why they collect is because they want to know their subject, and for me a lot of things that I’ve learnt is from those primary sources. In the old days, if it had a black face on it, I’d pick it up. And I wouldn’t know who the person was, and sometimes I didn’t know what period, but as the years go by you start to get that timeline. And that timeline is really rich.
You can’t have had any idea just how big your collection would get!
I’ve mounted exhibitions on Les Ballet Negres and Ira Aldridge at the V&A (Museum). I’ve given talks & presentations at the National Portrait Gallery on the first all-black musical called In Dahomey, which was on at the Shaftesbury Theatre 1903, drawing from their collection of Cavendish Morton photographs. It’s then I realise how important my collection is. I’d started to collect when for most of the national institutions it wasn’t a part of their collections policy to gather black historic material. So that’s led me to having probably the biggest collection there is!
And your links with the Theatre Museum…
I was introduced to the Theatre Museum by Billy Differ, who at the time was General Manager at the New London Theatre. He had gone there and had a meeting with them and they were doing something on black history, and he told them about ‘this guy at Stage Door, who tells me about the early black presence on the British stage …you have to meet him!’ And that’s when the introduction happened.
When and what was your very first piece?
I think the very first theatrical piece that I picked up was probably around 1986… but then I wasn’t collecting really. It was then that I went to David Drummond’s shop in Cecil Court (London), Pleasures of Past Times, and he showed me a piece which had a chap on it called Daddy Rice who was known by the name of Jim Crow, as a black-face entertainer. It was a poster, and I think he gave it to me with a huge reduction because it was all soiled. But I thought, I’m going to keep this. I thought I’d lost the poster for many years too, and then it resurfaced when I was putting the exhibition together! The first thing that I actually took money out of my pocket to buy would have been round about 1988, when I suddenly thought I’ve really got to start…
It was a conscious decision to start a collection?
Yes. But because I don’t come from an academic background, I didn’t realise the significance of it when I first started. I put things together to use for kids in workshops. Then I went away with a friend of mine, who was a history teacher, who made me aware that I was sitting on primary sources and that the bedrock history is built on primary sources. I didn’t understand until then but he spelt everything out to me. Then I started to be asked to talks and presentations around the history of black dance – I’ve lectured at Roehampton and Middlesex Universities, I’ve been invited to speak at conferences. I just thought it was about sharing my findings.
Did you worry about the financial aspect of amassing such a collection?
I used to go into auction houses and I’d be there with very little money in my pocket and I’d ring up my bank manager at Lloyds and tell him I was at Philips Auction House and had just seen something. He would ask me to be honest and think about whether I really needed it. Of course I always did. He would tell me to just go ahead and write a cheque. Those were the days when you had a personal relationship with your bank manager. He’s now a director at Lloyds and the other day I asked him why he let me get away with it… and he said ‘I knew.’ There must be something about the signals that you give out and people understand that you are not mad, but serious about what you are trying to do.
Have you always been a bit of a hoarder?
Yeah, I am the king of hoarders!
If you could have any piece in the world, what would it be?
There’s still a couple of things – I do have a wishlist. Somebody on my wishlist is Buddy Bradley. He was a leading choreographer on shows like Anything Goes and all those early productions for Charles B Cochrane, and he was also well known for a lot of film choreography as Britain’s answer to Busby Berkeley. Sometimes in the evenings he’d create events working with major jazz and classical dancers, and they would all just come together to put on a show after their evening shows. He’d even choreographed a piece on the Royal Ballet. So I’d love to find something on him. I’ve got programmes – the Evergreen programme, which was actually a show which was on at the Adelphi – but he’s the only person that I know at the moment who is not yet in my collection as an original photographic image.
It must feel amazing when you find that very special piece…
It’s like the picture of Billy Walters – he was the 18th Century Street Entertainer who used to play outside the Adelphi Theatre – and in my break from the theatre, I was walking down Shelton Street and there’s a shop called Grovenor Prints, and I always ask them if they’ve got this or that. I’d been looking for Billy Walters for years and I went in there one day and I saw it! When I asked how much it was they said £95 – but it could have been £9,000 and I would still have had to have it, because I know how long I’d been looking for it. It had actually came from the collection of Alex Clunes, the actor and father of Martin Clunes. It meant I could now say my collection spans 200 years, because most of the Victorian entertainers that I’ve collected tend to come in more around 1801 and 1822 and 1829… so to get him was great. Things do come to you when you’re ready to receive!
Another time I was doing an exhibition at the V&A on Ira Aldridge, the first black Shakespearean actor, and they also had a theatre fair at the Southbank, which happen twice a year. A friend told me after the event that they had a copy there of an original song sheet called ‘I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird,’ sung by Florence Mills. I had been looking for that piece for ages – they knew I was looking for it and they didn’t get it for me! But when Adelaide Hall passed away, there was a copy of her own music sheet of that song – so I got it in the end – you see how things work!
A major boost to your collection must have been when you inherited Adelaide Hall’s memorabilia…
Yes, the entire collection. That came through because I was with Adelaide on her 92nd birthday, when she was in hospital. I didn’t know it was her birthday, I’d been sitting at home having the morning off, and on Richard & Judy they said it was Adelaide Hall’s birthday and that she was in Queen Charlotte’s Hospital. I rang my brother and said we had to go to the hospital and see her on her birthday. So we went running down there and most of Britain’s leading variety artists were there to honour her 92nd birthday. As I got there she was saying that she was tired, but as she told everyone else to go she grabbed hold of my hand and told me and my brother to stay, it was really magical.
The thing I remember most from that day sitting with Adelaide is when they brought round the hospital dinner, and it was boiled fish, Brussels sprouts, carrots, and boiled potatoes. And she looked at me and smiled and the first thing she did was cut a bit of fish, put it on the fork, put it towards my mouth, and I ate it. Then she cut a bit, and she had a bit. I saw the Brussels sprouts and I thought, please don’t do this! I hate soggy over-cooked sprouts but when she cut it in half and offered it to me I thought, I am not going to say no to the queen of jazz on her birthday!
It was just a pleasure to be with her. There was another chap who used to support her called Barry Sullivan. He was an actor and also worked in quite a few theatres in Box Office, and he was very close to her. He originally inherited her collection but when he passed away the collection was left to “Leon of Camden Town”. Adelaide had also signed a Positive Steps poster and she’d said ‘good luck to all the children at Positive Steps.’
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