Michelle Scott, associate professor of history, will discuss her new book T.O.B.A. Time: Black Vaudeville and the Theater Owners Booking Association in Jazz Age America (University of Illinois Press, 2023) on April 11, presenting the history department’s annual Lowe Lecture. In a conversation with UMBC News, Scott shares the artistic, social, and historic context of an association that brought Black artists to both Black and white audiences across the United States during the 1920s.
UMBC News: What are some of the central themes the book explores?
Scott: The book explores the lives of the performers, theater owners, producers, managers, and audiences that were part of Black Vaudeville and the Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.). It’s a story about how these Black- and white-owned theaters fostered Black artistic exploration and development and the growth of Black-owned businesses. T.O.B.A. is the foundation of Black live entertainment in the 20th century. This is the first in-depth study of this circuit during a time of transition in the entertainment industry between WWI and the Great Depression in segregated America.
UMBC News: Who were some of the artists who began with T.O.B.A. and grew famous, leading to profitable and stable careers?
Scott: T.O.B.A. is a cornerstone in the history of the African American entertainment industry where artists like Cab Calloway, the famed singer, songwriter, bandleader, conductor, and dancer, honed their talents. Other artists include “The Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters, who became the first Black woman to receive equal billing with white stars on Broadway. These headliners, including Sammy Davis Jr., the tap-dancing Nicholas Brothers, Count Basie, and the comedic duo Butterbeans and Susie, found fame lasting decades beyond the Jazz Age.
But there was also a place for novelty acts, like the person doing the hula hoop or playing the harmonica with their nostrils. There were also tabloid plays. These abbreviated musical comedies bootlegged off-Broadway plays in a few songs. It’s a much shorter version of today’s Broadway tours. Think of a cabaret version of Hamilton represented in three songs.
It might be a few minutes, but T.O.B.A gave an opportunity to a wide variety of talents to create shows that appealed to a wide audience.
It was a family, where many had multiple jobs to make the show happen. Singers would do makeup. An actor would help with costuming. It wasn’t “the show must go on.” It was “the show will go on.”
UMBC News: T.O.B.A. enabled artists to channel their talents and broaden their networks. What was the association’s impact beyond performances?
Scott: This was the entertainment business. In 1929, T.O.B.A. was among the 12th most profitable black-owned industries in the United States, alongside black-owned insurance agencies, beauty businesses, dressmakers, etc. It had headquarters in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Chattanooga, Tennessee, running 100 theaters over a decade. For Black and white theater owners, T.O.B.A. provided a steady stream of entertainers, helping to contribute to the local and national economy.
The hospitality industry grew to meet the demands. This was a particularly important business venture for leading Black artists who were paid well like Cab Calloway and the “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey, who was paid $800 for four performances and could spend money on fine room, board, and clothing while traveling for performances. In segregated towns, the Black hospitality industry played an essential role in meeting the needs of entertainers. Black women found opportunities to operate boarding room homes and cook meals, and workers created a key union to fight for fair wages.
As traveling performers, women were also allowed more financial, sexual, and artistic freedom away from families that could be strict and religious. Yet, they also faced gender discrimination and sexual violence on the road.
UMBC News: Jazz Age America was a time of expansive Black artistic exploration and innovation within a heightened period of racial violence and segregation. How did this affect T.O.B.A.?
Scott: The world was trying to recover from WWI, the devastation of the Spanish Flu, and a slowly declining economy that would lead to the Great Depression. Returning white veterans and communities felt threatened by the prospect of losing jobs and housing to Black veterans and to families moving from the South. All of these tensions led to the “Red Summer” of 1919. Mass shootings, lynchings, and race riots spread throughout the country including in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.
Most of the T.O.B.A. theaters were in the South. Artists traveling the country and performing in theaters often risked their safety to make a living from their art. The Black working-class audiences were taking a risk going to see live shows and spending their hard-earned money while surrounded by racial violence and segregation.
One of the most haunting accounts that I found was of the Dreamland Theatre in Tulsa, Oklahoma owned by a Black couple. It was one of the earliest theaters to join the circuit. In 1921, it was leveled during the Tulsa Race Massacre. I was shocked that their records survived, allowing the shared history of the theater, owners, artists, and local community to be witness to the importance of Black theater to Tulsa’s Black community. The owners eventually opened up other Dreamland Theatres in Oklahoma.
T.O.B.A. is monumental because it helped Black artists and Black communities continue to thrive while fighting white supremacy. Many times, if churches were not able to provide a space to organize marches, communities organized in theaters. Sometimes, theater entrance fees were donated to help activists or communities hit by natural disasters, or to help with legal fees.
History definitely talks about the violence inflicted on Black communities, the death toll, and poverty, but it doesn’t always tell about Black innovation, economic prosperity, creativity, and thriving Black communities that existed before, during, and after the Jazz Age. It doesn’t always talk about art as an alternative resistance. T.O.B.A. is that story.
Learn more about this new book in Michelle Scott’s Low Lecture on April 11, 4-5 p.m., in the Albin O. Kuhn Library 7th floor. Research for the book was partially supported by UMBC’s Dresher Center for the Humanities and the CAHSS research grant.