Theatre Owners Booking Association

Theatre Owners Booking Association, or T.O.B.A., was the vaudeville circuit for African American performers in the 1920s. The theaters mostly had white owners (the recently restored Morton Theater in Athens, Georgia, originally operated by "Pinky" Monroe Morton, being a notable exception and Douglass Theatre in Macon, Georgia owned and operated by Charles Henry Douglass) and booked jazz and blues musicians and singers, comedians, and other performers, including the classically trained, such as operatic soprano Sissieretta Jones, known as "The Black Patti", for black audiences.


The association was established following the work of vaudeville performer Sherman H. Dudley. By 1909, Dudley was widely known as the "Lone Star Comedian" and had begun an attempt to have a black-owned and operated string of venues around the United States.[1] By 1911 Dudley was based in Washington, D.C. as general manager and treasurer of the Colored Actors' Union,[2] and set up S. H. Dudley Theatrical Enterprises, which began buying and leasing theaters around Washington and Virginia.[3] By 1916 the "Dudley Circuit" had extended into the south and Midwest, enabling black entertainers to secure longer-term contracts for an extended season; this circuit provided the basis for T.O.B.A.[3] His circuit was advertised in a weekly column published in black newspapers, "What's What on the Dudley's Circuit", and by 1914 it included over twenty theaters, "all owned or operated by blacks and as far south as Atlanta."

T.O.B.A. was formally established in 1920 by people associated with Dudley's circuit.[4] Its President was Milton Starr, owner of the Bijou Theater in Nashville;[5] its chief booker was Sam Reevin of Chattanooga.[6] The organization had more than 100 theaters at its peak in the early to mid 1920s. Often referred to by the black performers as Tough on Black Artists (or, by Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, as Tough on Black Asses), the association was generally known as Toby Time (Time was a common term for vaudeville circuits).[7] It booked only black artists into a series of theatres on the East Coast and as far west as Oklahoma. T.O.B.A. venues were the only ones south of the Mason-Dixon line that regularly sought black audiences, according to one reference.[8] T.O.B.A. paid less and generally had worse touring arrangements, which the performers had to pay for themselves, than the white vaudeville counterpart.[9] But like white vaudeville, T.O.B.A. faded from popularity during the Great Depression, collapsing in late 1930 when Dudley sold his chain of theaters to a cinema company.[6][10]

Operations and performersEdit

According to writer Preston Lauterbach, "a basic TOBA troupe carried about all the variety a single stage could hold, not to mention all the personalities one sleeping car could hold", including tap dancers, comedy teams, actors, and blues singers. Their backdrops, costumes and props moved with them.[6] Its earliest star performers included singers Ethel Waters, Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Edmonia Henderson,[11][12] Mamie Smith, Minto Cato and Adelaide Hall; comedian Tim Moore with his Chicago Follies company (which included his wife Gertie); the Whitman Sisters and their Company; musicians Fletcher Henderson, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, Joe "King" Oliver, and Duke Ellington; comedians Sandy Burns, Salem Whitney Tutt, Boots Hope, Seymour James, and Tom Fletcher; future Paris sensation Josephine Baker; songwriter and pianist Perry Bradford, the mime Johnny Hudgins; dancers U. S. Thompson, Walter Batie, Earl "Snakehips" Tucker, and Valaida Snow; and many others. In addition, later well-known names such as Florence Mills, Lincoln "Stepin Fetchit" Perry, Hattie McDaniel, Mantan Moreland, Jackie "Moms" Mabley, Dewey Pigmeat Markham, Johnny Lee, Marshall "Garbage" Rogers, Amanda Randolph, Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, a young William Basie (before he came to be called "Count") on tour with Gonzelle White, and four-year-old Sammy Davis, Jr. all performed on the T.O.B.A. circuit.[7] The death of White's husband was blamed on poor conditions at the theaters.

The most prestigious black theaters in Harlem, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., were not part of the circuit, booking acts independently; the T.O.B.A. was considered less prestigious.[9] Many black performers, such as Bert Williams, George Walker, Johnson and Dean, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Tim Moore, and Johnny Hudgins, also performed in white vaudeville, often in blackface.

Further readingEdit

  • Nadine George-Graves, The Royalty of Negro Vaudeville: The Whitman Sisters and the Negotiation of Race, Gender, and Class in African American Theater, 1900–1940, in Dance Research Journal, Vol. 33, No. 2, Social and Popular Dance (Winter, 2001), pp. 134–138.
  • David Krasner, A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama, and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, AIAA, 2002, ISBN 978-0312295905.
  • Bernard L. Peterson, Jr., Profiles of African American Stage Performers and Theatre People, 1816-1960, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000, ISBN 978-0313295348
  • Henry T. Sampson, Blacks in Blackface: A Source Book on Early Black Musical Shows, Scarecrow Press, Second edition, 2013, ISBN 978-0810883505
  • Redd Foxx and Norma Miller, The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor, W. Ritchie Press, 1977, ISBN 978-0378083027
  • Iain Cameron Williams, Underneath a Harlem Moon ... the Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall, Bayou Jazz Lives, Continuum, 2002, ISBN 0826458939[13]


  1. ^ Abbott, Lynn; Seroff, Doug (2007). Ragged but right: black traveling shows, "coon songs," and the dark pathway to blues and jazz (1 ed.). Jackson: UP of Mississippi. ISBN 9781578069019.
  2. ^ Historical Dictionary of African American Theater.
  3. ^ a b Monsho, Kharen. "Dudley, Sherman H." Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved 5 April 2012. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  4. ^ Southern, Eileen (1997). The music of black Americans: a history (3 ed.). New York: Norton. pp. 297–98. ISBN 9780393038439.
  5. ^ Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.), Musicians Local No.627. retrieved 15 November 2015
  6. ^ a b c Lauterbach, Preston (2011). The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock'n'Roll. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 303. ISBN 978-0-393-34294-9.
  7. ^ a b Colin Larkin, ed. (1995). The Guinness Who's Who of Blues (Second ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 338. ISBN 0-85112-673-1.
  8. ^ "Vaudeville - Part II". Retrieved 2014-09-13. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  9. ^ a b Giles Oakley (1997). The Devil's Music. Da Capo Press. p. 96. ISBN 978-0-306-80743-5.
  10. ^ Lauterbach, p.38
  11. ^ "Edmonia Henderson Charms With Voice And Smile". Baltimore Afro-American. May 30, 1925. p. 4. Retrieved 2014-09-12. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  12. ^ Kelley, Norman (2002). R&B, Rhythm and Business: The Political Economy of Black Music (First ed.). New York, United States: Akashic Books. p. 107/8. ISBN 1-888451-68-8.
  13. ^ "Underneath a Harlem Moon: The Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall (Bayou Jazz Lives)". Retrieved 2014-09-13. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)

External linksEdit