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Arnaz, Desi (02 March 1917–02 December 1986), bandleader, actor, and television producer, was born Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y Acha III in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, the son of Desiderio Arnaz II, a landowner and politician, and heiress Dolores “Lolita” de Acha. His early youth was privileged, but the revolution of 1932 broke up his secure home. His father was jailed briefly, and the family ended up in Miami with very little money....

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Autry, Gene (29 September 1908–02 October 1998), country singer, actor, and baseball team owner, was born Orvon Gene Autry in Tioga, Texas, the son of Delbert Autry, a livestock dealer and tenant farmer, and Elnora Ozmont Autry. He later recalled that his family was poor but “never Tobacco Road poor. My father earned good money, when he felt like it, which was some of the time” (Autry, p. 4). They moved frequently during his childhood, to small farms and hamlets in northern Texas and southern Oklahoma, eventually settling outside Ravia, Oklahoma. His grandfather, a Baptist minister, taught him to sing when he was five years old so he could join the church choir; his musically talented mother taught him how to play a mail-order guitar. As a teenager he sang ballads for tips at cafes, and around 1923 he toured for three months with the Fields Brothers Marvelous Medicine Show. During these years he was reportedly fired from a job as a ranch hand because his singing distracted the other hands from their labor....

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Gene Autry. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Barrymore, Lionel (28 April 1878–15 November 1954), actor, composer, and artist, was born Lionel Blythe in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Herbert Blythe, an actor who adopted the stage name Maurice Barrymore, and Georgiana Drew (Georgie Drew Barrymore), an actress. His mother’s family had been in the theater for generations. Lionel was raised chiefly in the Philadelphia home of his maternal grandmother, actress-manager ...

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Cantor, Eddie ( September 1892?–10 October 1964), entertainer, was born Israel Iskowitz in New York City, the son of Mechel Iskowitz, a violinist, and Meta Kantrowitz. Orphaned at the age of three, he was raised by Esther Kantrowitz, his maternal grandmother. He was educated in the public schools of New York’s Lower East Side. His grandmother registered him as “Israel Kantrowitz,” but the name was subsequently anglicized to “Isidore Kanter” by a school official. Kanter, who altered the spelling of his name to “Cantor” upon embarking on a show business career in 1911, grew up on the streets. His grandmother, an Orthodox Jew, earned a living selling candles and other household items and by securing employment for young immigrants as maids in East Side homes....

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George M. Cohan Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1933. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LOT 12735, no. 236 P&P).

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Cohan, George M. (3 or 4 July 1878–05 November 1942), performer, writer of songs, musicals, and plays, and producer, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of Jeremiah “Jerry” John Cohan and Helen “Nellie” Frances Costigan. (Cohan’s middle initial stands for Michael.) At the age of seven, Cohan was sent to the E Street School in Providence. His formal schooling lasted six weeks, after which the school sent him to rejoin his parents and sister, Josie, in their theatrical travels. He took violin lessons and played the instrument both in the theater orchestra and in a trick violin act he devised. The Cohans went on their first road show as a family in 1889; when the show failed they went back to ...

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Columbo, Russ (14 January 1908–02 September 1934), popular singer, motion-picture star, and radio and recording artist, was born Ruggiero de Rudolpho Columbo in San Francisco, California, the son of Nicholas Columbo, a musician who had immigrated to the United States from his native Naples near the turn of the century, and Mariana or Maria (maiden name unknown). Educated initially in the elementary schools of San Francisco, young Ruggiero Columbo attended high school in Los Angeles, where his parents had relocated in 1921. While at Los Angeles’s Belmont High, where he played violin in the school band, he anglicized his first name and became known as Russ Columbo....

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Coward, Noël (16 December 1899–26 March 1973), playwright, songwriter, and performer, was born Noël Peirce Coward in Teddington, England, the son of Arthur Sabin Coward, a generally unsuccessful traveling piano salesman, and Violet Agnes Veitch. Coward’s American connections began at age sixteen as an extra in a ...

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Crosby, Bing (03 May 1903–14 October 1977), singer of popular music, was born Harry Lillis Crosby in Tacoma, Washington, the son of Harry Lowe Crosby, a plant accountant, and Catherine Harrigan. His father was an easy-going descendant of Edmund Brewster, one of the Puritan signers of the Mayflower Compact. His mother, an Irish Catholic, was a strict disciplinarian. Early in his life the family moved to Spokane, Washington, where Crosby grew up. At age six he entered Webster Elementary School (1909–1917), where he received the nickname “Bing.” In 1921 he graduated from the rigidly Jesuit-run Gongaza High School and entered Gongaza University (1921–1925), where he prepared for a law career....

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Sammy Davis, Jr. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1956. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-114446).

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Davis, Sammy, Jr. (08 December 1925–16 May 1990), variety performer and entertainer, was born in Harlem, New York, the son of Sammy Davis, Sr., an African-American dancer, and Elvera “Baby” Sanchez, a Puerto Rican chorus girl, both in Will Mastin’s Holiday in Dixieland...

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Johnny Desmond, c. 1946-1948. With Margaret Whiting. © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB13-0204 DLC).

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Desmond, Johnny (14 November 1920–06 September 1985), singer and actor, was born Giovanni Alfredo de Simone in Detroit, the son of Anthony de Simone, a grocery store owner, and Lillian Buccellato. Johnny sang at age nine on a local radio show, “Uncle Nick’s Children’s Hour.” He later attended the Detroit Conservatory of Music, then formed his own vocal group, the Downbeats. In the summer of 1940 the Downbeats were hired by the ...

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Eddy, Nelson (29 June 1901–06 March 1967), film actor and concert baritone, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of William Darius Eddy, an electrical engineer and inventor, and Isabel Kendrick. Eddy was from a musical family: both of his parents were noted local singers; his grandmother, Caroline Ackerman Kendrick, had been a famous oratorio singer; and his grandfather, Isaac N. Eddy, had been the bass drummer with Reeves’s American Band. In 1915 his parents separated, and his mother moved to Philadelphia. Nelson left school to take a job with her brother at the Mott Iron Works there, and he never returned to finish his formal education. His father stayed in Providence and later remarried. Virginia, a half-sister, was born in 1925. Later, her two sons became favorites of Eddy’s, who had no children of his own....

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Foran, Dick (18 June 1910–10 August 1979), actor and singer, was born John Nicholas Foran in Flemington, New Jersey, the son of Arthur F. Foran, a state senator. (His mother’s name is unknown.) He attended Princeton University where he was a star on the football team and a member of the glee club. His interest in acting was sparked while at Princeton, and he decided to spend a summer in Hollywood. While out West, his friend ...

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Hayes, Isaac Lee, Jr. (20 August 1942–10 August 2008), soul singer, composer, keyboard player, and actor, was born in Covington, Tennessee, the son of Isaac Hayes, Sr. and Eula Wade. In Hayes’s infancy, his father abandoned the family and his mother died in a mental institution. He was raised by his grandparents, William and Rushia Wade, who were sharecroppers....

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Ives, Burl (14 June 1909–14 April 1995), folk singer and actor, was born Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives in Hunt City Township, Illinois, the son of Frank Ives, a tenant farmer and highway culvert builder, and Cordella White. A bird, singing on an oak branch outside his mother’s window, ushered in Ives’s birth, and his brothers made him a cornstalk fiddle when he was just a toddler, but it was his pipe-smoking grandmother Kate White who made him a singer. She knew hundreds of folksongs and would fix her bright, black-button eyes on him and sing. Ives was age four when, at an old soldiers’ reunion, he first performed in public. Although he had just eaten two hot dogs that he purchased on credit, he sang well, received one dollar, paid his debt, and spent the remainder on merry-go-round rides. At age twelve he sang and played his banjo at a local camp meeting and was asked while still in the sixth grade to be part of a high school theater group that performed in neighboring towns. He spent his junior and senior years in a consolidated high school in nearby Newton and played football as a fullback and as an all-conference guard....

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Burl Ives Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1955. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-10367).

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Charles W. Carey Jr.

Jessel, George (03 April 1898–24 May 1981), entertainer, was born George Albert Jessel in New York City, the son of Joseph Aaron Jessel, a playwright and traveling salesman, and Charlotte Schwartz. He began his singing career when he was nine years old by serenading customers in his maternal grandfather’s tailor shop. Later that year, using the stage name “McKinley,” he began singing baritone with the Imperial Trio at a Harlem theater where his mother worked as a ticket-taker and soon was appearing solo as Little Georgie Jessel. After his father died in 1908, he cut short his formal education after only six months to join Gus Edwards’s School Boys and Girls, a traveling vaudeville troupe. He toured with a number of Edwards’s shows until 1914, when his voice changed and he lost his boyish appeal, whereupon he went to England to perform as a singer and comedian for the next three years....