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Mon, 01.31.1921

Theater Owners Booking Association is Formed

Contract letter

*This date, in 1921, celebrates the Theatre Owners Booking Association, or T.O.B.A. 

They were the vaudeville circuit for Black performers in the 1920s.  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. By 1911 Dudley was based in Washington, D.C. as general manager and treasurer of the Colored Actors' Union and set up S. H. Dudley Theatrical Enterprises, which began buying and leasing theaters around Washington and Virginia. 

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. His circuit was advertised in a weekly column published in black newspapers, "What's What on Dudley's Circuit," and by 1914, it included over twenty theaters, "all owned or operated by blacks and as far south as Atlanta."  The theaters mostly had white owners 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.  

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". Their backdrops, costumes, and props moved with them. Its earliest star performers included singers Ethel Waters, Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, the Whitman Sisters, and their Company.  Josephine Baker; songwriter and pianist Perry Bradford, Valaida Snow; and many others. In addition, later well-known names such as Florence Mills, Hattie McDaniel, Mantan Moreland, Jackie "Moms" Mabley, and four-year-old Sammy Davis, Jr. all performed on the T.O.B.A. circuit. 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. 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.  T.O.B.A. was formally established in 1920 by people associated with Dudley's circuit. Its President was Milton Starr; its chief booker was Sam Reevin. 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, the association was generally known as Toby Time.  

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. 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. 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.  

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