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Allen, Steve (26 December 1921–30 October 2000), comedian, author, songwriter, was born Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen in New York City, the son of vaudeville comedians Carroll William Allen and Isabelle Donohue, who performed under the stage names Billy Allen and Belle Montrose. Literally born into show business, Allen toured the vaudeville circuit with his parents from infancy until his father died suddenly when Allen was only eighteen months old. Because his mother chose to continue her career, she left her young son in the care of her eccentric family in Chicago. In his first autobiography, ...

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Caesar, Irving (04 July 1895–17 December 1996), songwriter, was born Isidore Caesar in New York City's Henry Street settlement, the son of Morris Caesar, the owner of a secondhand bookstore, and Sophia Selinger Caesar. He attended the Chappaqua Mountain Institute, graduated from New York City's Townsend Harris Hall High School in 1914, and was briefly enrolled at the City College of New York before going to Detroit in 1915 to work for the Ford Motor Company as a mechanic. Caesar also served as secretary to ...

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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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Hodes, Art (14 November 1904?–04 March 1993), jazz pianist and writer, was born in Nikolaev, Russia, the son of William Hodes, a tinsmith, and Dorothy (maiden name unknown). “I’m not completely correct on when I was born. It was … somewhere between 1904 and 1906. We left hurriedly, and we had no papers,” he told writer Whitney Balliett. He moved with his family to New York City at the age of six months and then to Chicago at age six. Hodes took piano lessons at Hull-House from 1916 to 1920. He attended Crane High School, a vocational school, but dropped out to take on a variety of day jobs, none lasting very long. He then enrolled at Medill High School and graduated....

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Larson, Jonathan (04 February 1960–25 January 1996), composer-lyricist-librettist of Rent, a rock opera inspired by La Bohème, composer-lyricist-librettist of Rent, a rock opera inspired by La Bohème, was born in Mt. Vernon, New York, and raised in suburban White Plains, the second child of Allan S. Larson, a direct-marketing executive, and Nanette Notarius Larson. Both parents loved music and theater; show tunes and folk music were always playing in their home. Both Larson and his sister took piano lessons during elementary school. The boy could play by ear, and his teacher encouraged him to experiment with rhythm, harmony, and setting words. By high school, he was called the “Piano Man” after the enormously popular song of that title by Billy Joel. He also played tuba in the marching band. Active in school and community theater, Larson had major roles in several musicals....

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Maxwell, Elsa (24 May 1883–01 November 1963), international hostess, songwriter, and newspaper columnist, was born in a theater box during a touring company’s performance of Mignon in Keokuk, Iowa, the daughter of James David Maxwell, an insurance salesman and part-time journalist, and Laura Wyman. Her childhood was spent in a modest flat situated among the elegant homes on San Francisco’s Nob Hill. A disappointment there at age twelve may have influenced her later party giving. A neighbor, the wealthy senator ...

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Mercer, Johnny (18 November 1909–25 June 1976), popular composer, lyricist, and singer, was born John Herndon Mercer in Savannah, Georgia, the son of George Mercer, an attorney, and Lillian Ciucevich. Throughout his childhood Mercer was fascinated with the popular songs of the day as well as by Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and the blues and spirituals of southern blacks. From 1922 to 1927 he attended Virginia’s Woodbury Forest Preparatory School, where he wrote light verse and songs. Shortly after graduation he pursued a career as an actor and singer in New York. There he married Ginger Meehan, a dancer, in 1931 and soon had two children. While his acting career languished, success as a songwriter came in 1933 when he collaborated with ...

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Porter, Cole (09 June 1891–15 October 1964), songwriter, was born in Peru, Indiana, the son of Samuel Fenwick Porter, a druggist and farmer, and Kate Cole. His mother (who added Cole’s middle name, Albert, later) arranged to have one of his songs published when he was eleven. Porter’s education at Worcester Academy, Yale (B.A., 1913), and Harvard’s law and music schools (1914–1915) was financed by his maternal grandfather, James Omar Cole....

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Sandburg, Carl (06 January 1878–22 July 1967), poet, writer, and folk musician, was born Carl August Sandburg in Galesburg, Illinois, the son of August Sandburg, a railroad blacksmith’s helper, and Clara Mathilda Anderson. His parents were hardworking Swedish immigrants who had met when August Sandburg was working on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad in Galesburg and Clara Mathilda Anderson, who had traveled on her own to the new world, was employed as a hotel maid in Bushnell, Illinois. The frugal couple instilled in their seven children the necessity of hard work and education, as well as a reverence for the American dream. When Carl Sandburg entered first grade, he Americanized his Swedish name, thereafter signing his school papers and his early work as a poet, orator, and journalist “Charles A. Sandburg.”...

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Swift, Kay (19 April 1897–28 January 1993), composer, lyricist, and songwriter, was born Katharine Faulkner Swift in New York City, the daughter of Samuel Swift, a music critic, and Ellen Faulkner Swift, an interior decorator. She began her musical studies at the age of seven, later won a scholarship to the Institute of Musical Arts (now the Juilliard School), and in 1920–1921 attended the New England Conservatory, where she studied piano with Heinrich Gebhard and composition with ...

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Van Vechten, Carl (17 June 1880–21 December 1964), writer and photographer, was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the son of Charles Duane Van Vechten, a banker and insurance agent, and Ada Amanda Fitch. Van Vechten entered the University of Chicago in 1899 and graduated in 1903, whereupon he went to work as a society reporter and photographer for the ...