History of T.O.B.A.
What is T.O.B.A.?
T.O.B.A., as already mentioned, stands for Theater Owners Booking Association. Its purpose is in its title: T.O.B.A. was an association of theater owners who booked Black vaudeville performers. That is, performers could bring their acts before the association and receive show times in the associated theaters.
Back up. What is vaudeville?
Vaudeville was an entertainment genre that gave audience members the opportunity to see mixed acts, including song (both classic and blues), dance, comedy, magic acts, and instrumental jazz. As vaudeville grew in popularity in the United States (1880s -1920s), Black-owned theaters and Black-led theater associations arose to provide better opportunities for Black performers than the white-owned theaters and associations allowed. Black-owned theaters also gave the opportunity for Black performers to perform for Black audiences, which contrasted many of the earlier minstrel practices that catered to white audiences and their tastes.
Significance of T.O.B.A.
As vaudeville grew in popularity in the United States (1880s -1920s), Black-owned theaters and Black-led theater associations arose to provide better opportunities for Black performers than the white-owned theaters and associations allowed. T.O.B.A. was one of these Black-led associations. Black-owned theaters also gave the opportunity for Black performers to perform for Black audiences, which contrasted many of the earlier minstrel practices that catered to white audiences and their tastes.
Some artists revised the acronym to “Tough on Black Asses” (Harrison 23) or “Tough on Black Artists” because of the “grueling work schedules, low pay, and often inadequate dressing rooms and stages” (Lieb 27). Because of this, many T.O.B.A. performers also performed in other theaters. But despite the challenges that the T.O.B.A . circuit presented to performers, T.O.B.A. theaters remained attractive venues; they provided ample opportunities for work, with single theaters often booking performers for a whole week of multiple performances a day (Lieb 27).
Evolution of T.O.B.A
Where it began and how it transformed into a notable institution
Dudley Theatrical Circuit*
This was the first Black-controlled theater circuit and booking agency, formed by Sherman H. Dudley, a former vaudeville comedian.
*Some Nuance: There is some misunderstanding about the relationship between the Dudley Circuit and T.O.B.A. It is easy to conflate them, since Sherman H. Dudley led both, and they had similar purposes, but T.O.B.A. came after the Dudley Circuit, was more expansive, and involved multiple theater owners.
T.O.B.A. was founded by brothers Fred and Anselmo Barrasso*, Italian theater owners in Memphis who wanted to create a theater chain for Black performers.
*Some Debate: There is some academic debate about whether this origin story of T.O.B.A. is accurate. An opportunity for further research includes locating more primary source documents about Fred and Anselmo Barrasso, and about T.O.B.A. ‘s existence before 1921, besides in reference to its squabbles with the S.C.C.
The Southern Consolidated Circuit
Dudley’s Theatrical Circuit merged with two other circuits into the Southern Consolidated Circuit (S.C.C.), which got into arguments with T.O.B.A.
The S.C.C. was absorbed into T.O.B.A. and eventually Sherman H. Dudley gained control of T.O.B.A. Through Dudley’s marketing efforts and business expansions, T.O.B.A. became a well-known name in vaudeville. Its routes for upcoming performances were frequently advertised in Black newspapers, and the glowing reviews for T.O.B.A. performances helped many Black performers gain notoriety. For singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, the positive reviews of their performances on T.O.B.A. increased their record sales.