American Vaudeville Museum

All material © 1998-2011 American Museum of Vaudeville, Inc.  Page 30


& Black Vaudeville

Not just separate and certainly not equal, Black Vaudeville grew parallel but hidden beside mainstream vaudeville.  There were theatres which catered to African American audiences from Chicago to Kansas City to Dallas and east through the deep South from New Orleans to Florida and back up north to Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia and New York City.  And there were more theatres for blacks in all the big towns and small cities that spotted the map between Richmond, Virginia and Tulsa, Oklahoma and from Atlanta, Georgia to Cincinnati, Ohio.

Most of these theatres were owned by white men for whom entertaining blacks was simply a business.  Most were no better and no worse than those who owned or managed theatres for audiences.  But some were far worse.  And a few were gentlemen.  There were also a few theatres owned by African American women.

Most of these theatres were vaudeville houses.  In the early days, an act—black or white--would write ahead to various theatre owners, sending their clippings, hoping to secure a booking.  Booking agents came on the scene before the turn of the Twentieth Century and soon proved invaluable because they arranged the booking dates for both the theatres and the performers.  Since there were more performers wanting work than there were theatre owners looking for acts, most bookers soon were doing the owners’ bidding.

Black vaudeville got organized into a circuit by 1909 and the Theatre Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) determined which acts went where and for how long and how much.  Toby Time, as it came to be called, started with 31 theatres; at its height in the mid-1920s it numbered nearly 100.  Early on its reputation was so bad that black acts decided that T.O.B.A. must stand for Tough On Black Artists—or Tough On Black Asses.  But by the early 1920s the New Negro press was demanding reforms and things at T.O.B.A. started to improve.  By 1924 a black man who owned a number of theatres was part of the leadership of T.O.B.A.

Not all black theatres signed up with T.O.B.A: the more prestigious theatres of Harlem, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington stood aloof and earned their place as the tops in black vaudeville.

Some black vaudevillians were wooed away from Toby Time to appear in mainstream vaudeville as early as the 1890s.  Others preferred to work for audiences made up of their own people despite the lower salaries.  By the late 1920s and just before white and black vaudeville expired, T.O.B.A. was becoming a shadow of itself.  But theatres devoted to black audiences and performers, musicians and writers didn’t die out.  The Harlem Renaissance saw a flowering of creativity just as Toby Time had finished its tour, and black vaudeville drama led to the Negro Acting Ensemble and other like ventures, and vaudeville continued to fill the stage of Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theatre.