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Porgy 'Picnic scene,' Ella Robinson Madisonfourth from the right
*The birth of Ella Robinson Madison is celebrated on this date in 1854. She was a Black actress and singer.
Born in Saratoga Springs, New York, Ella Robinson was the youngest of 10 children. Madison's sister, C. Victoria Robinson was married to Alonzo Dewey Northup in August of 1865 shortly after Northup was mustered out of the 26th Regiment, Company F of the United States Colored Troops. Alonzo Dewey Northup was the son of Solomon Northup and Anne Hampton Northup. He was their third and youngest child. 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. Robinson’s association with Herman Lindy’s “Female Quartet” resulted in another toured in England and Continental Europe performing until returning to New York City in 1891.
Around this time, Robinson married John Madison; they had one daughter who died as a teenager. Upon the death of her husband, Robinson was unable to return to the stage and became a house-cleaner and nursemaid. In 1917 she was employed as a nursemaid for modern artists William and Marguerite Zorach, to take care of their baby daughter Dahlov, she worked for the Zorachs for over 10 years at their Greenwich Village apartment. Dahlov fondly remembered the many gospel hymns and minstrel songs that Ella sang to her.
In 1927 the Zorachs were made aware of her extensive theatrical career and 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.” That fall, at the Guild Theatre she introduced herself to the director Rouben Mamoulian and with a borrowed a guitar 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 Madison, 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. At that time she was 75 years old and performing in the cast of “Porgy” in New York’s Theatre Guild. 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.
Ella Robinson Madison died in her sleep at the age of 79 on April 14, 1933, and was provided a memorial service by her theatre friends.
Rene Moore, founder,
Solomon Northup Day
Irene Northrup-Zahos, great, great-granddaughter of Solomon Northup
Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre
The University of Missouri at Columbia.
Image New York City Library Archives