One of the benefits of social media is that it daily demonstrates a precept articulated by sci-fi author Robert Heinlein in his 1973 novel, “Time Enough For Love”: “Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.” Case in point: The offensive and ignorant antisemitic comments about Hollywood recently spewed by Ye (formerly known as Kanye West). If such ugly and reductive show business myths are to be countered by genuine understandings of a complex reality, then what we need are history lessons of the kind delivered in “T.O.B.A. Time: Black Vaudeville and the Theater Owners’ Booking Association in Jazz-Age America” by Michelle R. Scott.
Not only does “T.O.B.A. Time” clear up misconceptions you might have that Vaudeville is a town in New Jersey, it clarifies the important role African American entrepreneurs played in promoting entertainment by and for Black people during a transitional period in American show business history.
Chartered in December 1920, the T.O.B.A. was a circuit of theaters strung across the country, primarily in the East, South and Midwest, that provided African American audiences with vaudeville variety shows in venues dedicated to their comfort and well-being. Scott stresses that as an incorporated entity, the T.O.B.A. was governed by an interracial executive board, which was unusual for the time. Joined by a shared interest in tapping a consumer market neglected by racism, this business alliance of Jewish and African American entertainment entrepreneurs helped scaffold the transition from minstrelsy to professional show business opportunities for African American entertainers like Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith and Cab Calloway.
The organization was sustained by theater owners and operators (many of whom, though not all, were African American) who bought in as shareholders, becoming franchised theaters that relied on talent vetted and booked by the T.O.B.A. This arrangement ensured the theaters a steady, reliable stream of quality entertainment, and it provided reliable employment and protections to the entertainers themselves. These assurances were not without complications; Scott digs into the “multiple meanings of T.O.B.A.” by discussing the perspectives of the performers themselves. She mines, as she says, “oral histories, memoirs, playbills, and theater reviews” to provide portraits of the entertainers and insights into how the T.O.B.A. provided both opportunities and challenges for “artistic growth, travel, and community building.”
Scott notes that the T.O.B.A. represented a challenge to the endemic racism of the day. As segregation became more socially and legally ensconced, African Americans resolutely pursued economic independence (the right to both earn and spend a dollar) in the interest of “racial uplift.” At the peak of its success in the mid-1920s, the T.O.B.A. circuit included between eighty and a hundred theaters, and the organization represented a host of Black entertainers, from blues singers to comedians like Butterbeans and Susie, to novelty acts like Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates. The organization declined as the roaring twenties flamed out, and by 1931, it was effectively defunct. Its legacy would feed the aspirations of a new collection of talent bookers, entertainers and venue owners who would coalesce around the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit,” a loose affiliation of African American nightclubs and small theaters, in the thirties, forties and fifties.
The University of Illinois Press has built a solid reputation for publishing a diverse and vital catalogue of books devoted to music in American life. (Disclosure: I am the co-author of a book that was published by the U of I Press in 2010). “T.O.B.A. Time” is an excellent addition to this catalogue. Make no mistake about it; the history of American show business is riddled with racism. What Scott’s well-researched book makes clear is that this history cannot easily be reduced to a victim-victimizer binary. Nor can the historical complexities that have given rise to today’s show business power structure be reduced to soundbites delivered by clueless Twitter twits.
“T.O.B.A. Time: Black Vaudeville and the Theater Owners’ Booking Association in Jazz-Age America”
By Michelle Scott
University of Illinois Press, 282 pages