Variety Arts #26: Black Vaudeville
While mainstream vaudeville provided opportunities for many African Americans, there were many limitations. African American acts were prohibited from headlining, they were numerically restricted (i.e., only one such act on the bill) and backstage they often had to use separate dressing rooms or none at all. In the Southern states, they couldn’t perform at the major theatres period, nor could black audiences patronize white theatres.
As a result, from a surprisingly early stage, an entire segregated entertainment industry arose. All-Black minstrel shows had been around since the 19th century (yes–minstrel shows, in which African Americans wore blackface and “impersonated” African Americans. It’s how blacks first broke into show business.) And African American book musicals and revues had been around since the turn of the century. In 1909, the first primarily black vaudeville circuit was established, the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA). This was an early incarnation that fizzled out. In 1921, a new version was established that was to provide employment for African American entertainers for about a decade. TOBA was often known as “Toby Time”, and, because of the poor condition of many of the houses, and the tough treatment of the acts by the management, it was often joked that the initials in T.O.B.A. stood for “Tough on Black Asses”. Some of the artists the circuit employed included Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith (no relation),Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Leonard Reed, the Nicholas Brothers, the Will Mastin Trio (featuring a very young Sammy Davis, Jr.), Stepin Fetchit, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, “Pigmeat” Markham, “Moms” Mably, Stump and Stumpy, Mantan Moreland, and the list goes on. In addition to the 45 theatres on the TOBA circuit (which was located in the South and Midwest), there were other, smaller all-black circuits in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. In addition to bricks-and-mortar vaudeville, travelling all black tent shows were a major factor in the rural areas. In the post vaudeville era, the national network of African American theatres became known as the “chitlin’ circuit”.
This significant underground cultural development went on largely unobserved by mainstream pop culture, until the 1950s, 60s and 70s when many of these acts began to be presented on television variety shows for the first time, changing American entertainment — and America — forever.
To this day, you can get a taste of something not too different from what audiences enjoyed on the black vaudeville circuits. It’s called Amateur Night at the Apollo. (Don’t let the name fool you)
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.