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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 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 partnered 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, England, Germany, and Switzerland. Robinson’s association with Herman Lindy’s “Female Quartet” resulted in another tour 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. After her husband's death, Robinson could not 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 ten 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 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 three 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 cast member. 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 Gershwin, with an entirely new set of composed songs.
Ella Robinson Madison died in her sleep at 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