Dancer and choreographer, Johnny Nit performed on Broadway and in Harlem in How Come (1923), a show which also featured Alberta Hunter, and in Dixie to Broadway (1924-5). He was frequently billed as ‘the world’s greatest tap dancer’, and his reviews suggest no one was disappointed at the moniker. On Broadway, Billboard noted that Nit’s ‘dancing routine stopped the show’ (Gordon Whyte, ‘The New Plays on Broadway: How Come?’ The Billboard (Archive: 1894-1960) Apr 28 1923: 36. ProQuest). Nit played in vaudeville alongside Will Vodery’s band in 1925.
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.
Jasper White was part of Isham’s Oriental America touring UK company in 1897. In 1900 Jasper White was appearing at Manchester Grand alongside George Bohee (who was no longer part of the famous banjo act, the Bohee brothers), described as a comedian. In July 1900 he was in a revival of The Octoroon at Newcastle Grand which then toured. He was part of the In Sunny Tennessee company in 1917. He became part of Will Garland’s company, in All Black (1922), Down South (1924) Coloured Lights (1925) Brownbirds (1927).
He appears to have become involved in nightclubs in later life, and advertises himself as the previous proprietor of the Sunset Club and of the new venture Club Ebony on Gerrard’s Street (various editions of The Stage July and August 1958). There is no mention of Jasper in any US sources, or in any UK genealogical records, so this is possibly a stage name he adopted for the UK, and he may well have been British.
From February 1907-1967 Howard appears touring British variety theatres widely as a singer and within the year as a smart dancer, sand dancer (London, Bradford, Walsall, Bath, Carlisle etc). ‘Puts in one of the most strenuous ten minutes’ pieces of work we recall. Some of his steps compare favourably with lightning, so rapid are they.’ (MHTR 10/06/1909), Howard ‘astonishes with his untiring energy and his weird steps’ (MHTR 13/12/1909, 13). These kinds of references occur throughout the period – he clearly worked with both dance and comedy and was referred to explicitly in racially offensive terms. In 1922, he produced Going Some with a Syncopated Orchestra with Lewis Hardcastle.
There is also a Black drummer called Amos Howard who is potentially the same person, since he was part of the Going Some company.
In 1926 he went into he is listed as a partner in a business venture with Emmerson, Stockwell Productions. That note lists his address as 35 Camberwell New Road, in South East London. His company produced StillGoing Some with Lewis Hardcastle, Flossie Pearce and Pepita Graham, and later Eddie Emmerson. He was in variations of this production until 1929, with a particular partnership with Hardcastle. He performed with Johnny Nit in a 1930 touring revue. He was also in the Lew Lake’s Blackberries of 1931 company, one review noted his ‘brilliant dancing’ (The Stage, 09/08/1931, 8). This was the point he potentially retired, as no clear mentions can be found subsequently.
[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:
Actor and singer, later film actor, Astwood was born in Florida before he moved to New York as a young man. He was in the UK for a two year period as part of T. Elder Hearn’s production of Blackbirds 1928-9 (the company included Johnny Nit, Anita Edwards, Olive Mendez and Bert Russell). Astwood sang solos and duets with Edwards, who was a white Welsh opera singer.
He briefly went into another Elder Hearn vehicle around Eddie Hunter, Good Gracious, but returned in 1930 after the tour. Before his arrival in the UK, Astwood had been a part of several US all Black cast revues including the Chicago production of Shuffle Along (1924), in Eddie Hunter’s Struttin’ Time (1924, co written with Alex Rogers) Darktown Scandals (1927). When he returned to the US in 1930, Astwood performed in various Harlem theatres, including the Alhambra, the Apollo and at the Cotton Club alongside Duke Ellington. He later appeared in three films Paradise in Harlem(1939), Sunday Sinners (1940), and Murder on Lenox Avenue (1941). He died in Florida in 1994.
British Newspaper Archive, Afro American, Billboard.
Astwood is mentioned in numerous accounts of Black film in the 1940s and in connection with Duke Ellington (e.g. Vail, Ken. Duke’s Diary. Scarecrow Press, 2002) but there is no substantial further material yet written.