Last week we introduced you to Leon Robinson – and in the second of our interviews, the man with the CV that includes actor, dancer, director (and, of course, collector) tells us how his personal theatrical experiences were part of the inspiration behind his organisation, the performing arts and multimedia agency Positive Steps.
Where did the idea for Positive Steps originate from?
The reason I started Positive Steps was when Sammy Davis Jr passed away in 1990. I thought that all his films would be shown on TV as a tribute and the film that I wanted to see was Porgy & Bess, because I wanted to see his portrayal of Sporting Life. But it wasn’t on TV. I’d waited all my life to see this film! I think the film was retracted because there were drug references in the script, which caused the film not to have the wide exposure I think it deserved.
But I said to myself, I don’t want any more great black artists to pass away without being acknowledged, and that was my first step towards creating Positive Steps. Also, particularly in London, you can see so much history around you. I’d go down to David Drummond’s theatrical bookshop Pleasures of Past Times in Cecil Court and I’d ask him if he had anything on any of the early black entertainers that lived in Britain. But he only had American stuff and it made me think. Britain is steeped in black entertainment history. From the little I knew, in the Victorian and Edwardian times, there were hundreds of black entertainers in this country. So it shows the diversity that has existed.
And it wasn’t just about colour. When I was at dance college, we had the same respect for people like Dame Marie Rambert, who was Polish – it’s about, you don’t really see those colour barriers when you’re actually working as an artist.
Where there any others who influenced you at that time?
Simon Callow is a very special man, full of a tremendous inner value of truth & great purpose , he was directing us in Carmen Jones, and I remember on the first day there was a whole table full of books about the Harlem Renaissance. You could go and read them, so when you’re doing your improvisations later on, everything’s in context, and you know that you’re drawing from a rich legacy. Simon and I hit it off straight away, because I think he realised I was a bit more than a dancer and a singer – I had a larger vision. I think that’s why, working in the theatrical environment, you’re fortunate that people actually understand there are lots of visionaries in all shapes sizes and colours.
While I was working on Carmen Jones I met a great man called Richie Riley, who was one of the original members of Les Ballet Negres – Britain’s first black ballet company. They were founded here in 1946. I’d go and see him, and I thought – this is more important than what I’m doing. It’s a fact that we will lose all these rich chapters of history if you just think it’s about you going to an audition, you getting a gig. I realised that I was actually being exposed to a lot more.
After that I went to visit Richie Riley every day for about four years and one day he asked me to get something out of his closet. When I opened the door I saw this huge sheepskin coat with a fur collar and I suddenly realised I knew him! I used to go to his classes at Omnibus in Ladbroke Grove. He had remembered me, but I didn’t have a clue, because by the time I’d met him then, he was wheelchair-bound, he’d lost both his legs. When I would have seen him in the 80’s he was very agile – and then to see someone fifteen years later, slumped in a chair – it took a while.
The London Palladium features in the history of Positive Steps…
When I first stared Positive Steps, my vision was to create a tribute to Sammy Davis Jr at the London Palladium. So I had a meeting in Soho Square with David Kinsey, and they loved what I was doing – that was in 1990 and I probably only had about £5 in my back pocket! David gave me the number of the company who were prepared to produce the souvenir brochures free of charge and it started from there.
I walked out of that meeting, bumped straight into a well known variety entertainer Bernie Winters and told him I was doing a tribute to Sammy Davis Jr and he said he wanted to be involved. Then as I walked past the London Palladium I see Maria Ewing come out and I mentioned the tribute I was planning. She gave me her contact details and all of a sudden the network started to come together. David Kinsey even put me in touch with Roy Castle from Record Breakers… all of a sudden I was worth on paper about £135 grand! That was in the 90s!
The problem was I wasn’t ready at that time. I had the idea and I was getting amazing support but didn’t have the infrastructure in place. So it didn’t happen. That was why it was really good, twenty years on, to be at the London Palladium celebrating not only Sammy Davis Jr but other great black artists especially Adelaide Hall whose picture has now a permanent home right alongside Judy Garland.
It must have been a very strong vision for you to have had to confidence to approach these people in the first place. You are obviously very passionate about what you do. Would you just go and talk to anybody about it?
Oh, I would! Yes! I give the same respect to a dustman as I would if I was to meet the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We’re all people! And you get a sense of how they’re going to be to you. I’ve had meetings with Simon Callow when he has just come in and sat with me at the Stage Door. He doesn’t judge you as somebody who is just working on Stage Door, but actually understands that you’ve got to make ends meet, you’ve got to keep the coals going… and I think that’s the most exciting thing about theatre, one day you could be working front of house, the next day you could be directing something, and the next day you could be producing – it’s a real hub of creative energy. For me, having the exhibition at the Palladium, especially because it’s free of charge, it allows people who would not even normally be exposed to theatre to come along and to tap into the richness.
What I’m trying to do is offer another layer of the theatrical experience. I think the greatest orators and custodians of history is theatre. We put on productions that honour and celebrate great people, moments and places from the past. The theatre was a place that allowed me to dream and to express myself. When I started Positive Steps in 1990 I was recruiting kids in adventure playgrounds or walking through the streets of Covent Garden asking them if they wanted to be involved. All these kids would come to Pineapple Dance Studios, where I’d been offered spare studios free of charge. And a lot of those kids are still working in the industry today.
So then you broadened Positive Steps to include performance?
Yeah, because for me it’s an extension of what I’ve been exposed to, but what a lot of people haven’t been exposed to. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve met people like Adelaide Hall. When I met Adelaide, I was working front of house at the Adelphi where she’d stared in a few Sunday shows. We both performed at the tribute to Sammy Davis Jr many years later at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and we were onstage together, she put her hand on my shoulder and I turned to her and said, ‘I feel like I’ve been knighted tonight – you are a queen!’ and tears just came running from her eyes. She gave me her address but asked me not to share it because she wanted to keep our communication going.’ For me to know I was on that stage with Adelaide Hall, Billy Eckstine, The Nicholas Brothers – you’re talking real greats. I thought, you’ve got to share this. You’ve got to let other people have a chance to be exposed to it. Because those people, they’re just like me, they’re children – they have a different sort of energy.
What would you say is the mission statement of Positive Steps now?
It changes all the time. I used to have, underneath the logo: ‘talent means nothing without opportunities.’ Now it’s ‘reworking the past to create the future.’ I think it’s about creating opportunities for people to discover something within themselves. Even as an audience member, you have a role – everybody is as integral to that night’s events, from the crew member, the Stage Door person, the sound people, the artists… and when it comes together, it’s magic. And that’s what I love – at the end of each show, everybody goes to the local pubs in Covent Garden and you see the front of house, you see the crew, you see the cast – everyone’s together, just letting their hair down.
For me, Positive Steps is I think one of the first companies in Britain to try and reawaken that rich history that had been airbrushed out of the history books. Early stages yet though… early stages!
In the next instalment of our interview with Leon, he tells us how he started his infamous collection..
Click here to go back to previous page