Join us as we return from our summer break to continue with the biographies – this time – the extraordinary Black British composer and performer, Madeline Rossiter.
A contralto singer, performer, male impersonator, tap dancer, dance teacher, choreographer, multi-instrumentalist, theatre director and comedian, as well as a composer and lyricist.
Rossiter toured extensively across the UK, Australasia and South Asia, known professionally as Madeline Rossiter. also performed in UK productions of musicals like the touring production of Rose Marie as Wanda the Mountain Vamp, leading the dance work of the company.
Despite this extensive presence, Rossiter isn’t included in An Inconvenient Black History of British Musical Theatre and we were told about her by a reader – we’ve noted several times that we are aware of the vaster history we are gesturing towards. What’s particularly exciting about Rossiter is that some of her music has survived – and there is potentially more in private circulation. In celebration of 135th anniversary of her birth, we’ve researched into her remarkable career and brought together some new information from digitised news sources from the UK and the US.
Very unusually for retracing Black practitioners in the early 1900s-1910s, there is one clear and full biography of Madeline Rossiter’s work written while she was still alive. The November 1954 edition of B.M.G. (Banjo Manadolin Guitar) “The Oldest Established and Most Widely-read Fretted Instrument Magazine in the World” – provides a detailed overview of her career, updating their readers that she was still directing amateur musical theatre productions in Cornwall. Though some details are very unclear, using digitised databases allows us to find a little more about Rossiter, who was by any definition, an extraordinary polymath.
Cornelia Estelle Johnson (b. 29 April 1875, New York – d. 1970, London )
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. https://doi.org/10.1525/nr.2014.17.3.84