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.
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: