[Hurnes, James Edward] (b.?, Birmingham, UK d.1950, fl. 1916-1949)
Emmerson was a comedian, actor, dancer, singer, later compere long associate of Will Garland. In 1910 and 1913, ‘Eddie Emmerson’ appears as an ‘American juggling comedian’ however, in later interviews Emmerson stated his birthplace as Birmingham, UK. (The Birmingham Daily Gazette later notes he is a ‘clever local comedian’ 24/07/1923, 3)
Though Black performers were often assumed to be US American, no further mention is ever made of any juggling ability, it is likely this was someone else. This means Emerson’s first appearances under that name begin from the mid-1910s. Emerson was married to Myla Soysa (Westminster & Pimlico News, 09/01/1931, 8); her wedding registration lists her marriage to Emerson or Hurnes. The address given in news coverage of an unlikely event at the Soysa family home (a cat was singed in a fire and saved its owners from further harm by causing attention to the problem) reveals his address to be 4 Seagrave Terrace. In coverage of applications for Theatrical Employers’, the same address appears with the name James Edward Hurnes, thereby confirming his identity. Hurnes’s 1914 war record gives his profession as acrobat.
The acting/theatre roles that Emerson played, as well as the paucity of information on him, reveal the limitations placed on Black performers during the period. His first named role seems to have been Man Friday in the Derby Hippodrome’s 1915 pantomime Robinson Crusoe, a role which he played the year before his death in 1949 at Bournemouth’s New Royal Theatre. He played Jim Crow in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Coventry Hippodrome in 1925). Emmerson was primarily associated with many Black cast revues. He perhaps had some producing role in the 1930 production Spades are Trumps as he ran advertisements for Black performers in The Stage 23/01/1930, 14. Together with Amos Howard, he established the Stockwell Productions company in 1926, which produced Still Going Some that year, with Hilda Dawson and Juno Grady.
He appears throughout the 1940s in variety billings – sometimes in a duo with white comedian Eddie Black. In 1946; listed as ‘the Bright Black Spot’ at Collins’s Islington (Stage, 28/08/1947, 3). Appears again at Collins in 1949 playing alongside Norman Thomas as ‘two dark clouds of joy’ (Stage, 12/05/1949, 5). He died while on tour with the revue Four and Twenty Blackbirds, from a heart attack (Stage, 06/04/1950, 4). He must have died without means to be privately buried, and was buried in a common [shared] grave in West London, West Brompton.
British Newspaper Archive
At the moment very little exists on Emmerson, he is covered in depth in An Inconvenient Black History of British Musical Theatre.
There is more to learn about Black performers using blackface in performance, Camille Forbes has worked extensively on the earlier key practitioner Bert Williams:
Forbes, C.F., 2004. Dancing with” Racial Feet”: Bert Williams and the Performance of Blackness. Theatre journal, pp.603-625.
List of productions
|Smoke Up||1916||Gordon Stretton|
|All Black||1917-1923||Will Garland production|
|Coloured Society||1917||George Sax and then Will Garland production|
|Down South||1922||Listed as ‘Eddie Myers’|
|Going Some||1923,||prod. George Sax, conducted by Mr Horton Boucher with Lewis Hardcastle|
|Brown Birds||1927-8||Will Garland production|
|Still Going Some||1926||Produced by his own company, Stockwell Productions.|
|Swanee River||1929||Will Garland production|
|Spades are Trumps||1930||With Jackson and Blake, Russell and Vivian, Ohio Three|
|Lew Lake’s Blackberries of 1931||1931||With Ike Hatch, Amos Howard, Frank Parham and Dorothy Venton, Shorty Mounsey, Andy Clark and Stanley Coleman|
|Rhapsody in Black||1931||‘Will Garland and Eddie Emerson’ had headline billing, Will Garland production|
|Plantation Memories||1941||Phoenix Theatre, London with Connie Smith|
|How Am I Doing Boys||1941|
|Four and Twenty Blackbirds||1950|