It might have started in London, but Leon Robinson has travelled the world to build the collection of black theatre memorabilia that is now showcased in, still on display at the .
From a postcard fair in Southend to the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Centre, in this fourth instalment of our interview with Leon he discusses the lengths he’ll go to in pursuit of that key piece…
How do you source new items?
I would say to any budding collector go to antique shops, second hand shops and jumble sales. That’s where the magic is because when they do these house clearances up and down Britain, grandma or granddad or great-granddad had a programme and it’s been up in a box. None of the family are interested in it and it just gets thrown in a skip or finds its way to a jumble sale or second-hand shop.
And there are obviously trade fairs…
I go to the postcard fairs that happen once a month in Bloomsbury and I go to the Ephemera Fairs – I’m part of the Ephemera Society – and I love it because all the people that are there share the same passion for history. They might be into tractors, they may be into pharmaceutical instruments, but I love being around people that have some kind of passion to unearthing history.
What’s the greatest lengths you’ve gone to to get one particular piece?
Well, I can tell you the least distance I have been! One month they had the postcard fair in Southend. I asked a chap if he had any early black theatre pieces and he told me there were three pictures in one of the boxes. He had three photos of cast members from In Dahomey, the first all-black musical in 1903 at the Shaftesbury Theatre. He wanted about £15 for the three. I hesitated because I was thinking I would have been willing to pay about £115 each for the pictures! So he said, ‘OK I’ll do it for £12!’ so I picked up these three photographs for £12 and in my old home town! They formed part of the presentation I gave at the National Portrait Gallery.
At the other end of the scale I know people who’ve flown to Australia to buy a card that cost $7. But that $7 to complete a collection is priceless.
Are you constantly looking out for items?
Yes, even on holiday and it drives people mad! All my former girlfriends have told me to stop working but I don’t see it as work. When I go away the first thing I do after checking in at the hotel is to find all the old bookshops. Once I’ve been to all the old bookshops in town I want them to direct me to all the jumble sales and the second hand shops. I went to Brighton with some friends and as soon as we got there they go to the beach and I went in the postcard shop. I had as much fun on that holiday as they did!
Is there a lot of international interest in the pieces you collect?
Sometime ago I won an award from the Society of Theatre Research, Lisa Ullman travel scholarship and the Arts Council. I went out to America to visit the Schomburg Centre to find out how they catalogue and collate their archival material. When I walked in some staff members must have been watching me, I went straight over to the lift. They asked me why I ignored the bust and I told them that it was a bust of Ira Aldridge and we’ve got that bust in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. I told them that the day before I arrived I had picked up ten playbills of Ira Aldridge. They didn’t believe me at first but then offered me ten times as much as I’d paid for them!
Does collecting become very competitive?
We all know each other. I remember once at a theatre fair and I saw a big US collector I know from the University of Texas – Bernth Lindfors. He told me he had just purchased another Ira Aldridge playbill. He had paid £150. I was so upset, because I really felt that should have been mine! I asked the girl who had sold it to him what she was thinking of, but Bernth looked at me and said, ‘First come, first served!’
But then the same girl told me she had a Russian poster of, again, Ira Aldridge, playing King Lear for £1500. Although I had gone there to spend £200 I knew I had to have it. Bernth, who has come all the way over from Texas, asked her why she hadn’t told him about it! I turned to him and said ‘First come, first served!’
That seems a large amount of money!
A lot of the traders in Britain used to think I worked for Michael Jackson. Because people thought, you’ve got to be working for someone who’s funding this. But I wanted that poster so much I suggested to the girl that I would have to pay in instalments and she agreed. And I’d just finished doing some filming actually, for Cameron Mackintosh filming the refurbishment of the Prince of Wales Theatre and they’d liked it so much they decided to screen it at the Royal Gala opening and as a special fee for the screening paid me exactly what I needed to buy the Russian poster!
So you believe there are greater forces at work helping you…
I truly believe that things happen that we are not in control of. All you’ve got to do is trust and things will happen.
Have you ever had to turn something down because you couldn’t afford it and then it’s come back?
Yes and they still haven’t come back yet! I remember once, about ten years ago, I was at a fair and they had a Marian Anderson signed post card and the chap wanted £200. That was nearly a full week’s wages and I couldn’t justify it so I thought I would go away and save up for it. But I never ever saw that trader again and never ever saw the card again. So that’s why now, when I see something, I always pick it up because it’s the pain of the regret. You have to exhaust all the avenues to try and purchase it. Sometimes I have to phone someone up and ask them to lend me £200 so I can get it then. I don’t know if it’s just that they want to shut me up or put a smile on my face, but you find that people will come to your assistance, and I’ve been blessed in that way. I would do it for them too.
Do you ever find something that you think, ‘I had no idea about that?’
Or an artist you didn’t know about, and then you have to research them?
Yeah, Jeffrey Green, who wrote a book called The Black Edwardian which tells you everything you need to know about Black Edwardian entertainers, sent me a piece of paper yesterday that mentioned an artist called Leon Abbey. I knew I had heard that name before and I found his name on a music sheet in a drawer. The piece of paper Jeffrey sent contained the dates and the period he worked in England so finally I was able to put the jigsaw together.
Is there anyone that you would particularly like to meet, from present or past?
Buddy Bradley. He was a black choreographer and choreographed Anything Goes. When I was at school some of the teachers were in that original cast of Anything Goes and if I had known about him then I’d have wanted to know everything about him, and get an understanding of how he created his repertoire.
What’s the most recent piece in your collection?
I specifically stopped at the 50’s, because I was born in the 60’s. I think there is still so much out here from the Edwardian and Victorian period that still needs to be uncovered, so I’m allowing myself to do that.
And how far do you think it could go back?
Although this collection initially started out as a performing arts archive, it kind of grew into a social history. I started to pick up items from World War 1 and 2 when I made an association with a black group called The Versatile 3 in Britain, who were raising money for the soldiers of WW1. And it continues… I’ve even got letters from William Wilberforce! I think sometimes when I’m showing people things about the performing arts, because they’re historians, they want the social and historical context too. So you’re able to provide that.
For me, young people, they may not be interested in the performing arts but they may be interested in fashion so they start to look at the tailoring and things like that.
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