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Wed, 05.22.1872

Sherman Dudley, Stage Entrepreneur born

Sherman Dudley

*The birth of Sherman Dudley is celebrated on this date, c1872.   He was a Black vaudeville performer and theatre entrepreneur.  

Sherman Houston Dudley was born in Dallas, Texas, of humble parentage.  A jockey early in his youth, he turned to theater and gained a reputation by singing in a medicine show on a Dallas street corner.  By 1897 he had his show, the "S. H. Dudley's Georgia Minstrels", performing in Galveston, and he was on tour with P. T. Wright's Nashville Students Company. He gained a reputation for writing popular coon songs (including a hit song called "Mr. Coon, You'se Too Black For Me") and performed with several minstrel comedians in shows in the same vein, including A Holiday in Coonville. 

When he toured in 1902, it was clear that he was a popular, well-known artist in the South and was billed as "the Lone-Star comedian". In 1903 he married Alberta Ormes, with whom he'd been performing since at least 1901, and was on tour the following year with Richard and Pringle's Georgia Minstrels.  By this time, he received star billing.  In the summer of 1904, however, he left that company and moved to Chicago to take over the leading role in Gus Hill's Smart Set.  Dudley performed with the Smart Set for years with great success, though one critic, Sylvester Russell (a writer for the Indianapolis Freeman), was hard on him from the beginning. Russell commented on Dudley's son, after which Dudley beat him, according to Russell; Dudley was arrested and fined $1 and court costs, after which Russell sued him for $5,000.  

In 1909, the Smart Set split up into a Northern and a Southern Smart Set, the first being directed by Dudley and the latter by his understudy, Salem Tutt Whitney; their 1909-10 production, His Honor, the Barber, was written with music written for the show by Black composers James Tim BrymnChris Smith, and James Burris. The show opened in New Jersey for a mixed audience, and by the time of the final run, Aida Overton Walker had joined the cast.  By this time, Dudley was widely known as the "Lone Star Comedian" and had begun to expand his business ventures, moving into a theater to have a Black-owned and operated string of venues around the United States.  By 1910 Dudley was based in Washington D.C., where he served as general manager and treasurer of the Colored Actors' Union.

In 1911 he set up S. H. Dudley Theatrical Enterprises and began buying and leasing theaters to develop the first Black vaudeville circuit.  Initially around Washington and Virginia, he bought his first theater, in Baltimore, in 1912.  In August 1912, he played his last season with the Smart Set, devoting himself to his "circuit of theaters."  By 1916 the "Dudley Circuit" had extended into the south and Midwest, enabling Black entertainers to secure longer-term contracts for an extended season; his circuit provided the basis for the Theater Owners Bookers Association (T.O.B.A.). 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 founded by people associated with Dudley's circuit, and while the organization was white-owned, it had Black regional managers, including Dudley (for the Washington, D.C. area).  After 1917 Dudley devoted himself to producing Black musicals, including updated Smart Set productions. He sold his theaters around 1930 and retired to a farm in Maryland, where he bred thoroughbred racehorses.  Sherman Dudley died on March 1, 1940. 

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