Leon Robinson – whose varied career as an actor, dancer, collector, founder of the Positive Steps organisation and Stage Door Keeper at the New London Theatre means he has more than his fair share of stories to tell – has been collecting black theatre memorobilia for over twenty years.
From Ira Aldridge to Adelaide Hall to Sammy Davis Jr, his vast collection charts the history of black theatre and performance in the UK – highlights of which are showcased in The Living Archive Exhibition, curated by Leon in conjunction with The Really Useful Group and Stage Entertainment – currently on display at The London Palladium.
In the first of a series of interviews, we spoke to Leon about his own background and what drove him to begin the collection that actor Simon Callow called “the envy of collectors around the world” at the Exhibition’s launch…
What brought you to staging this exhibition at the London Palladium?
Well, I’ve always had a passion for history; art, dance and music and now I have the perfect opportunity to indulge all of these interests together! It’s as if those things were sprinkled on top of me and someone said, ‘Leon, these are the things that we think we’ll allow you to excel in, and forget about everything else!’
When did you first become interested in the past?
I was born in St Albans, which is steeped in history. We used to live close to the Abbey [in St Albans] so you are walking on ancient cobbled streets. One of our neighbours had an antique shop I’d be going in and out of. It’s the fact, I think, that at an early age, if you get exposed to things, it gives you an opportunity to discover how you feel about it. I’ve held a Victorian vase, and I’ve also been into a shop and held a modern vase. You ask yourself how do those experiences make you feel? I think it just gives you the opportunity to express yourself.
The physical quality is important to you?
It’s like that when I find an original photograph – I have to pick the picture up, and I need to smell it! I’ll never have a replica or a duplicate – it has to be the original, or I’ll wait.
What is your background?
When we moved from St Albans I started out a singer in Essex, in the Southend Boys Choir. It was Britain’s answer to the Vienna Boys Choir – we used to perform at places like the Purcell Rooms. Then I went to a theatre school called the Urdang Academy of Ballet and Performing Arts. I got another scholarship to the London Studio Centre. I also performed in Essex with local dance schools Wendy Headford & Essex Dance Theatre. So I’ve always been in and around the arts and entertainment. You get an opportunity to focus, express yourself – and stay out of trouble! Those hours spent with people that are passing on their knowledge to you – the fact that they’re giving you that time – made me realise I wanted to honour that.
So you have appeared on stage yourself?
One of the first shows I did when I joined the choir was Joseph! It was on at the Palace Theatre West Cliff on sea, and one of the presenters from Blue Peter was playing Joseph – I think my mum’s still got the little plate that we got, saying Joseph 1977 and 1976… I feel privileged that I was given an opportunity to work in an environment at an early age where I could express myself. You’re having such fun!
Did anything you learnt from these early experiences help you in later life?
That passion and commitment. And it’s the same way that I approach things now – I’ve been at quite a few conferences and people ask me what’s it like being a black theatre historian and archivist, and I answer that it’s no different from a kid who collects pokemon cards! You’ve just really got to have that passion and that desire.
You have experienced many different roles in your life…
I feel that everything I’ve done has enabled me to do what I do today, because I also work as a director. I shot some footage when they were dismantling the revolve at the London Palladium, before Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was going in, and I do lots of film work. In the past I’ve also worked for Radio 4 as a presenter and researcher, I write for various publications too – so I’m able to draw from the dance, from the singing, from my love of history – and then repackage it and utilise all those aspects in different ways.
Why did you stop the dancing?
I did some work for Arlene Phillips, videos for people like Diana Ross. I did a bit of backing dancing for artists like Sinitta and Sonia – those artists that came out of PWL (Pete Waterman Limited). When I first left college one of the first jobs I did was choreographing a trade show for Levis, which led to the creation of an in-store, commercial, and then I started choreographing for companies like Sock Shop. I did a trade show and video for Inmarsat, which was seen by a chap from a company called Siemens who used to come and watch my show, every day and he asked me to go and do some work for him. And I thought Siemens was this little shop in Wood Green – didn’t have a clue of the magnitude of the company!
I also worked with Simon [Callow] doing Carmen Jones at the Old Vic – and before that worked on the film version of Michael Tippet’s opera New Year so I got to work on that with the choreographer Bill T Jones. I thought, well, I’ve had opportunities a lot of people haven’t had – how can I create opportunities for people? That’s when Positive Steps really started rolling out.
Check back next week for more from Leon.
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