Ella Robinson Madison (1854-1933) was described in 1930 by newspaper writer Edward G. Perry as “The grand old lady of the Negro Theatre.” (Norfolk Journal & Guide, 5/10/1930, p. 30) At that time she was 75 years old and performing in the cast of “Porgy” in New York’s Theatre Guild. She had led an active theatrical life, beginning back in 1876 with a production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
She was born Ella Robinson in 1854 in Saratoga Springs, New York, the youngest of 10 children. At the age of 15 she moved to New York City and marched in the last 14th Amendment Day parade. Her first acting role was as “Topsy” in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a production which began at New York City’s Grand Opera House and then toured Europe in 1878, beginning in England and then going to Germany and Switzerland.
When she returned to New York City, she formed a partnership with minstrel singer Charles Asbury. This new act was called “The Virginia Duo” and opened at the Museum Theatre. Later “The Virginia Duo” toured Europe performing in Holland as well as England, Germany and Switzerland. A sound clip of Charles Asbury, originally recorded on a wax cylinder, playing "Haul the Woodpile Down" may be accessed here: Click here!
She then formed an association with Herman Lindy’s “Female Quartet” and toured again in England and Continental Europe. She traveled abroad and performed for years, finally returning to New York City in 1891. According to Edward Perry, “Ella Robinson sang before many crowned heads and other aristocrats. She received numerous decorations, jewels and money.”
Ella Robinson married John Madison, who was described by Perry as a “groom for the famous sportsman, Bob Stickney.” They had one daughter who unfortunately died as a teenager. Upon the death of her husband, Ella was unable to return to the theatre and the music halls. She became a house-cleaner and nursemaid.
In 1917 she was employed as a nursemaid for the famous modern artists William and Marguerite Zorach, to take care of their new daughter Dahlov and she worked for the Zorachs for over 10 years at their Greenwich Village apartment. Dahlov at the age of 94 still fondly remembers the many gospel hymns and minstrel songs that Ella used to sing her. At some point in 1927 the Zorachs were made aware of her extensive theatrical career and decided to put her in contact with friends in the Theatre Guild of New York which was auditioning for a new play by Dubose and Dorothy Heyward called “Porgy.”
So in the fall of 1927, Ella entered the rehearsal room of the Guild Theatre, introduced herself to the director Rouben Mamoulian who then asked her to sing some old Negro folk songs. She borrowed a guitar and sang “All de Gold in de Mountain” (aka “Fight Wid Ole Satan”) and was hired as “Annie” on the spot. “All de Gold in de Mountain” was also used in the play. After a successful year on Broadway, “Porgy” toured Europe for 3 months in 1929. For Ella, it was her 10th tour of Europe and she took great joy in returning to the theater, and being a “Mother” to every member of the cast. In the spring of 1930, “Porgy” was ending its long run, to be later adapted as the well-known musical “Porgy & Bess” by George Gerswin, with an entirely new set of composed songs.
Some photographs from "Porgy" are now available from the New York Public Library Digital Archives, including one from the Picnic Scene with Ella leading " Fight wid Ole Satan": click here!
When interviewed at the age of 75, Ella was still in good health and looking forward to performing in more theatrical productions. She died in her sleep at the age of 79 on Friday, April 14, 1933, and was provided a memorial service by her theatre friends.
Note From The Author:
I'm now making an effort via Facebook to see if I can contact any of Ella's extended family. Ella had no surviving children herself but she had nine brothers and sisters. The name of her eldest sister was Victoria Northup, married to Solomon Northup (associated with the Underground Railroad) of Weedsport, New York. So there is a good chance that her extended family is out there somewhere. Ella's maiden name was Robinson and she grew up in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Thanks to Cheryl Black, Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre, University of Missouri at Columbia, for discovering the Perry newspaper article and forwarding it to my cousin Jonathon Zorach who then passed it on to my mother, Dahlov (Zorach) Ipcar, and myself.
Some of the songs that Ella sang were transcribed by family friend Winifred (Wendy) Holt and are listed below and discussed in other Mudcat threads.
Fight wid Ole Satan (aka All de Gold in de Mountain)
The West Indies Blues
O, de Lord Tol' Nory
Trials and Tribulations
One Little Fambilee
Jonah an' de Whale