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Collecting for the future…  
Leon Robinson on the future of his Living Archive Collection

Exhibitions, education packs and documentaries – Leon Robinson‘s plans for his amazing collection, spanning 200 years of black theatre history, have only just begun with the current Living Archive Exhibition, showcased at the London Palladium.

Where do you keep your collection?
Heritage Lottery Fund, the Arts Council, they’ve all been asking me the same question! I’ve got some of it in my home, some of it in my brother’s home, (whispers) I’ve got Adelaide Hall’s grand piano – I couldn’t get it in my flat, I live about three floors up in one of those Victorian houses, so it’s in my brother’s living room.

How organised is your collection? Do you catalogue everything?
People would laugh because it’s catalogued in my head, but not in anybody else’s!

So you haven’t got a computer record of every piece? 
No. It’s funny because I had a meeting with the Heritage Lottery Fund, who asked me what the next step forward would be. I mentioned I was starting to think about cataloguing and collating the archival material and then to digitise the collection.

You haven’t gone digital yet?

That’s the big next step!  There is always the question of archiving and security.  But I am so busy & under resourced I don’t have the luxury to think about the security. Eventually, one day, I hope the collection can be made accessible to the public.

So you say it is catalogued in your head – do you know everything you have in the collection, so you can instantly think ‘I have that,’ or ‘I don’t have that’?
I know everything that I’ve got but for me an item becomes the most priceless, when I can’t find it!  I could be looking at photographs by Angus McBean, great images and posters, but it’s a little letter I’m looking for from Pat Salzedo, who’s an original member of Ballet Negres, that suddenly becomes the most priceless piece in the collection.  Everything else becomes worthless until I find that letter!

Do you ever rest?
People always ask me when I’m going to have a holiday! I don’t, but I know that I’m due to. Hopefully in the next couple of months I’ll try and take some time out. But what I do is driven with a lot of heart and it gives me a sense of purpose. And then you suddenly realise how privileged you are, that you can actually do something you enjoy.

So it never becomes a chore…
Never. Never. I’m always running from pillar to post.

Physically, if you got all your collection together, how much space would it take up?

If I got everything laid out, I’d say the whole of Tower Street (The Really Useful Group’s head office)!

Have you any idea of the value of your collection?

Years ago, a chap from the University of Texas walked into my flat and suggested the value of my collection.  It was astonishing and he told me that if I ever wanted to sell he wanted to be first in line. As well as Adelaide Hall’s collection I was left the Ballet Negres collection, which is a really rich collection of letters from people like Dame Sybil Thorndike and Robert Helpman – a premier dancer from Australia – photographs, correspondence, contracts… it’s a whole world of stuff!  And there are costumes too.  Can you imagine going home from work with £9 in your pocket, then opening a box which contains items worth about £9,000.  And then more boxes, and you those are worth about £90,000!  An Adelaide Hall and Paul Collins Blackbirds poster sold for about $135,000. One poster.

But you’d never sell any of it, would you?
No, no, no. My thing is, I’m very humble. I want other young people to know that you can start something just through your own passion and commitment. You can create something. Lots of people have said to me, why don’t you deposit your collection at black cultural archives, why don’t you deposit it at the Theatre Museum… but I need to prove to the next generation that are growing up that if that old eccentric Leon Robinson can do it, then I can do it too.

Where would you like to go from here?
My dream is to have seven different exhibitions going on at the same time, and then to create education packs and things like that, and then DVDs and documentaries.  I would like to go into documentary dramas and then eventually start to make films of the people that are in the collection, because my gift, strangely enough, is how I use a camera & direct. That has evolved through dance and music, because once you’ve sat in the worst seats in the upper circle, you know how to frame something. You use all those angles.

I’m now in talks with various development teams to look at ways how we can maximise what we’re currently doing with the exhibition at the Palladium, ideally for me eventually I’d love to see schools and colleges come down to the exhibition – and then hopefully create a bridge for them to be exposed to theatre history, in a theatrical environment an opportunity experience the show Sister Act, & all the Palladium has to offer.

What I’d love to do, is to be able to develop reminiscence projects around the Exhibition at the Palladium.  It would make a really rich exciting intergenerational project. I’d like to see people of all ages doing workshops and master classes and finally bring them into a building steeped in theatrical history, giving them an opportunity to witness first hand the rich reservoir of priceless chapters of history.  Elders would reminisce, such as artists like Steve Clark (The Clark Brothers) who could talk about his outstanding accomplishments in over 75 years in show business.  Or people like Linford Hudson who is the longest-serving member of staff at the Palladium who started working in the Theatre when he was 15. He lit Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr, all of those greats, an opportunity to see examples of good professional working practice.

You are enjoying being at the London Palladium?
What you have to understand is when most great entertainers, variety entertainers, pass away – they’ll always reference that they performed at the London Palladium – it is so good to be there  On the launch day, there were so many people here and it was so refreshing to here them reminisce about how they’d watched Sunday Night at the London Palladium… For me, just walking into the Palladium always used to take my breath away – as I’d walk up to the box office I was always looking at pictures, because you want to make that association. And that’s why I love it now, seeing people look at the images on the wall. I don’t go up to them and say, ‘I’m Leon from Positive Steps..’! but I do just smile at them and I think I am making a change to people’s day.

Posted on: 9th September 2009

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