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.
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. https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-94605.
Pines, Jim Black and White in Colour: Black People in British Television since 1936 London, BFI Publishing
Selected chronology of shows and plays
|When||Title of Show||Type||Further details?|
|1900||Uncle Tom’s Cabin||Musical play||Theatre Royal Stratford, with Cassie Walmer.|
|1927||Good Times Coming||Revue||Announced 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’.|
|1927||The Lucky Bag||Revue||toured 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.|
|1929||The Fun Fayre||Revue||touring company|
|1930||The P—–y Revels||Revue||Touring variety show production (Essentially a full touring revue)|
|1942||The Little Foxes||Play|
|1944||Three’s a Family||Play||By Phoebe and Henry Ephron – toured across the UK|
|1947||The Coral Snake||Play||Presented at The Q theatre, West End.|
|1948||Jason||Play||presented at the New Lindsey Theatre Club, London.|
|1949||The Golden Hour||Play||presented at Leicester, by the Glasgow Unity Theatre company|
|1946||Stage Door||Play||Edna Ferber and George Kaufman play, West End followed by regional tour|
|1947||SS Glencairn||Play||Eugene O’Neill|
|1950||Deep are the Roots||Play||touring production (Read more about the Hull production here)|
|1956||The Green Pastures||Radio Adaptation||Marc Connelly’s play adapted for radio, Edric Connor and Earl Cameron starred.|
|1956||The Crucible||Play||English Stage Company production|
|1957||The Member of the Wedding||Play||English Stage Company, Royal Court then tour.|
|1958||Flesh to a Tiger||Play||Play about Jamaica, by the English Stage Company, also starred Cleo Laine. Play by Barry Reckford|
|1960||Mister Johnson||Play||Based on Joyce Carey’s novel, set in Nigeria in 1960. Adapted by Norman Rosten.|
Ancestry.co.uk; British Newspaper Archive; Proquest (Chicago Defender)