Whilst looking through the database of America’s Historical Newspapers, I stumbled across a 1919 advertisement for S. H. Dudley’s theater, a place where they showed photoplay and vaudeville acts. In the ad, they assert that they are “the only theatre on Seventh Street catering to people of color that does not DISCRIMINATE.” This piqued my interest.
The Sherman Houston Dudley theater was founded by its namesake, a man from Texas who had been a minstrel show performer and who had experience performing in the group “The Smart Set.” As Sherman saved money and became an entrepreneur, he slowly bought out a circuit of theaters and used them as safe spaces for black performers.
Sherman was one of the most popular black performers in the late 19th c, adding his skills as a musician with those of a comedian to his sets. Despite his popularity, he apparently never recorded.1
Eventually, Sherman Dudley’s circuit of theaters for African American performers, the “Consolidated Circuit,” merged into the Theater Owners Bookers Association (TOBA)2 as a way to help promote black artists and vaudeville performers in particular – famous blues singers like Bessie Smith had their start there.3 Dudley’s support of the theater and TOBA helped create a safe space for African American performers who often were still discriminated against despite their in-demand status. As an African American performer himself, he understood the struggles of his fellow black performers and wanted to help even out the playing field and give them fair and safe opportunities.
While Alexander Street Jazz Archives provide rather dismal results, I was able to find a recording uploaded to Youtube that supposedly was recorded by S.H.Dudley. There’s no way to really know if it was him, or if the uploader has any credibility. This is also a problem with materials that were recorded, particularly by African American performers – the exploitation and discrimination against them could have led to false advertising, incorrect records, marketing schemes, and deceptive contracts between performers and their companies. The Library of Congress site has many recordings by an S H Dudley, but here, his first name is Samuel – furthering the confusion. In an attempt to capitalize on Dudley’s talent, did someone else record this song under his name? Or intentionally use the first two initials to maintain ambiguity in the hopes that people would mistake this singer for Sherman Dudley? Did Sherman Dudley go by two different names? This could point to a further line of inquiry.
1 Tim Brooks. Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry. Chicago: University of Illinois Press (2010) 520.
2 Tim Brooks. Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry. Chicago: University of Illinois Press (2010) 520.
3 Thomas Riis and Howard Rye. “Theater Owners’ Booking Association.” The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd ed.. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 10, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/J445700.
Advertisement, “Dudley’s Amusements” in the Washington Bee (May 24 1919). America’s Historical Newspapers http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=J61W62EXMTUwNzU4NTA0OC41MTA1MDg6MToxNDoxMzAuNzEuMjQwLjI0Mg&p_action=doc&s_lastnonissuequeryname=5&d_viewref=search&p_queryname=5&p_docnum=3&p_docref=v2:12B2E340B2C9FFB8@EANX-12BA623D08261EE0@2422103-12B9B0B664446C80@4-12DCFE90E2C1B868@No%20Headline