Connie Smith

Cornelia Estelle Johnson (b. 29 April 1875, New York – d. 1970, London )

'It's not how old you are, it's how you good you are' - quote from Connie Smith, on a decorative background.

Connie Smith was born in the US in 1875, and lived the majority of her life in the UK after her arrival in 1894. With her partner Augustus ‘Gus’ Smith (who became her husband), she performed touring British theatre as a singer and performer as Smith and Johnson. In later life she worked extensively as a television and film actor.

Stephen Bourne has retraced much of Connie Smith’s extraordinarily expansive career (and an entry for her exists in the Oxford National Biography database). Like many of the performers covered here, the advent of digitised resources allows us to know much more about the breath-taking array of work Smith was involved in from variety theatre, radio, plays, film and television, across sixty years.

When Smith first arrived in Liverpool in July 1894, on the SS Southwark (on the Philadelphia to Liverpool route) her occupation was listed as a ‘minstrel’ performer on the shipping paperwork (which saw her travel with James Johnson – also listed as a minstrel, and could possibly have been her brother, but it is unclear exactly who he was to her).

Tracing her work before 1900 is quite challenging, but as Smith and Johnson they performed extremely widely across the UK. She appears in a bill at the Glasgow Britannia variety theatre in June 1895, which still exists today. They went on to tour towns and cities like Portsmouth, Bristol, Leicester, Woolwich, Liverpool, Nottingham, Brighton, and Manchester. They were primarily advertised as vocalists but occasionally as comedians and even vocal comedians.

One 1897 account of their performance at the London music hall, Foresters notes that they were singing ‘Goodnight Goodbye’, ‘Dora Dean’ and ‘Sailor Boy’. In 1900 they performed alongside Cassie Walmer in the Theatre Royal Stratford production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As Bourne notes in his biography of Smith, they were much praised for their singing and cake walk work by 1901.

The Era, July 1906

They clearly had a longstanding attachment to Liverpool, Connie was baptised as a Catholic in May 1902, presumably in order to be married there to Augustus [Gus] Smith shortly thereafter. Together they performed consistently in variety theatre, and increasingly in cinevariety (there are hundreds of accounts and references to their performances in The Era alone), until Gus Smith’s death in 1927.

The report of Gus Smith’s death came in The Stage in January 1927.

In 1927 Smith performed with the Southern Syncopated Singers as part of an act that ran alongside the premiere of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin movie at the London Pavilion. This company included John Payne and Mabel Mercer, and Noble Sissle clearly also had parallel performances at the Pavilion (perhaps in the nightclub) at the same period.

She was part of the London Show Boat company that featured Paul Robeson and Alberta Hunter (and we write about her in reference to that production in An Inconvenient Black History of British MT).

In the early 1930s she was singing at Romano’s Nightclub (as Pep Graham also did) as a quartet with Alexander Lofton, Edward Wallace, and Phil Hanlon, with songs like ‘River Stay Away From My Door’. She performed alongside Elisabeth Welch on the radio in the 1930s. She sometimes wrote updates to African American newspapers to inform readers at home about the successes of Black performers in the UK.

Curiously there are references to Connie Smith in the New York 1935 Cotton Club Parade, which starred Lena Horne and Nina Mae McKinney. There are no references to her that year that appear in the British Newspaper Archive, so it is possible that she went to New York to appear in the show – but there is no way to confirm at the moment. It was not unusual for settled performers to travel back for individual performances, so it is certainly possible. By 1939 she was living alone at 100 Brook Drive, Lambeth, and her occupation was listed as ‘variety and film artiste’.

In 1955, Edward Scobie wrote about her work in the UK for The Chicago Defender under the headline, ‘Septuagenarians Still Active in Foreign Theatres’. In that article he suggested that she had never returned in all the time she had been in the UK. It is difficult to establish whether he was write, given that Connie Smith is a common enough name to make finding her on immigration records exceptionally difficult.

In the UK, Smith was a founding member of the English Stage Company in 1956, where she performed in multiple plays including The Crucible. From this period on she was frequently on television, and her performances were reviewed in US Variety. There is a full film listing for her at the BFI.

Smith died aged 95, and like William Garland, another great figure in the history of Black performers in the UK, she was buried in the Streatham Cemetery area for variety theatre performers.

Read more

Bourne, Stephen. “Smith [née Johnson], Cornelia Estelle [Connie] (1875–1970), music-hall entertainer and actress.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2010; Accessed 22 Nov. 2020.

Pines, Jim Black and White in Colour: Black People in British Television since 1936 London, BFI Publishing

Selected chronology of shows and plays

WhenTitle of ShowTypeFurther details?
1900Uncle Tom’s CabinMusical playTheatre Royal Stratford, with Cassie Walmer.
1927Good Times ComingRevueAnnounced in The Stage, as a detail when her husband died. The show toured widely across the UK, including small towns like Walsall. The show featured the ‘Franco Boston Syncopators’.
1927The Lucky BagRevuetoured extensively, across smaller theatres like Cannock Hippodrome. Featured the same band as Good Times Coming playing ‘a fanfare of jazz’ so it is presumably related.
1929The Fun FayreRevuetouring company
1930The P—–y RevelsRevueTouring variety show production (Essentially a full touring revue)
1942The Little FoxesPlay
1944Three’s a FamilyPlayBy Phoebe and Henry Ephron – toured across the UK
1947The Coral SnakePlayPresented at The Q theatre, West End.
1948JasonPlaypresented at the New Lindsey Theatre Club, London.
1949The Golden HourPlaypresented at Leicester, by the Glasgow Unity Theatre company
1946Stage DoorPlayEdna Ferber and George Kaufman play, West End followed by regional tour
1947SS GlencairnPlayEugene O’Neill
1950Deep are the RootsPlaytouring production (Read more about the Hull production here)
1956The Green PasturesRadio AdaptationMarc Connelly’s play adapted for radio, Edric Connor and Earl Cameron starred.
1956The CruciblePlayEnglish Stage Company production
1957The Member of the WeddingPlayEnglish Stage Company, Royal Court then tour.
1958Flesh to a TigerPlayPlay about Jamaica, by the English Stage Company, also starred Cleo Laine. Play by Barry Reckford
1960Mister JohnsonPlayBased on Joyce Carey’s novel, set in Nigeria in 1960. Adapted by Norman Rosten.

Sources; British Newspaper Archive; Proquest (Chicago Defender)

Zaidee Jackson (1898-1970)

Zaidee is fairly well known and left behind a substantial recording profile. But her work in the UK is often not so explored – so we’ve uncovered this in more detail here.

Zaidee sang both jazz songs and spirituals, and was well known in Paris, the US and in the UK. She performed in the UK regularly between 1928 and 1933, in revues, variety and in radio broadcasts.

About Zaidee’s work in the UK

In 1928 she performed at the Piccadilly Hotel, apparently recommended by a Lord Lathom, the review notes she ‘has charm and versatility, and is especially good in spirituals’ (Daily Mirror 06/06/1928, 11). She was reported as having arrived via Cannes.  She broadcast regularly on the radio from London’s radio station from September 1928, often programs of spirituals though she was also described as a ‘[Black] syncopated song artist’. In October 1928 she performed spirituals before a play, Deadlock, though this appears to have been ill received by audiences at the time.

In September 1929 she performed in an all-Black cast variety radio show with Leslie Hutchinson, Williams and Taylor and Jackson and Blake. The radio work seems to have paused as Jackson then went into variety theatre (the Argyle, Birkenhead, Blackpool Palace). In 1930 she then performed in variety across the UK, first in Manchester Hippodrome, and then singing as a vocalist in support of Sir Henry Wood’s concerts at the London Coliseum (January 1930). By March 1930 she was appearing with the tagline ‘the singer from the Southland’, and was singing ‘My Fate is in Your Hands’ in variety. She must have been living or based at John C Payne’s house, as she gave his address for communications. She began broadcasting again in July 1930, though must have departed for Paris at some point fairly soon after this. 

Jackson returned to the UK in 1933, now billed as a blues singer in Ballyhoo at the Comedy Theatre (London’s West End). She began broadcasting shortly afterwards. By December 1934 she was performing in Monte Carlo, and appears not to have returned to the UK.


British Newspaper Archive, The Bystander

Read more

Wikipedia page entry

Jackson is mentioned in Michel Fabre’s 1991 book From Harlem to Paris Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980 and in Hilton R. Schleman’s Rhythm on Record (1978). has some references to her in period jazz magazines and in biographies of other (usually) women performers.


Garland Anderson (1886-1939)

Image of Garland Anderson (copyright status unknown)


Anderson is an important playwright, philosopher and performer, who has been widely written about for his work in general. There is an expansive biography available of his career at Wikipedia. In the UK he was the subject of a great deal of interest, and was frequently described as a ‘playwright, lecturer, and metaphysician’ in the British press. While he didn’t directly produce or write musicals, he was a part of the wider theatre scene and the Black community. He maintained a transatlantic presence throughout the 1930s, perhaps unsurprisingly given his marriage to Doris Sequeira, a white British woman.

He saw his plays produced in the West End, and worked as a lecturer and public speaker, often in churches. Mrs Bourchier produced his play Appearances at the Royalty Theatre, London, in March 1930 with Doe Green, a Black actor, in the lead. In 1932 it was reported that he wanted to revive it so that 200 unemployed men could see it and be addressed by him in the interval, and hear his message of hope. This came to fruition and his play was revived at the Fortune Theatre, he donated his royalties to a charity for the unemployed.

In 1934 he opened a teetotal bar at Shaftesbury Avenue, referred to as a milk bar, though it is unclear how long it lasted for.

He gave lectures across the UK, from Eton School, Edinburgh Rotarians, the Practical Psychology Club of Reading, to Eastbourne Pier and churches in Preston, Lancashire. He spoke about his ideas of “uncommon sense”, that allowed him to pursue the impossible or face unimaginable difficulties, and as a way to circumvent the many problems he had faced. He later published this idea as a book with the same title.

My common sense told me that these things were impossible, but I made them possible by using my uncommon sense - the power within that everyone can use"
Birmingham Daily Gazette (UK) 11 January 1939, 5.


British Newspaper Archive, in particular The Era.

Read more

Abramson, Doris E. Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre, 1925-1959. New York : Columbia University Press, 1991.

Internet Broadway Database records

Blackpast article

Prentiss, Craig R. ““The Full Realization of This Desire” Garland Anderson, Race, and the Limits of New Thought in the Age of Jim Crow.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 17, no. 3 (2013): 84-108.