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Akeman, Stringbean (17 June 1914–10 November 1973), banjo player and comedian, was born David Akeman in Annville, Kentucky, the son of James Akeman and Alice (maiden name unknown). Situated halfway between Corbin and Richmond, Annville was part of a region that produced several other notable banjoists, such as ...

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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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Steve Allen Used with the permission of Bill Allen, Meadowlane Enterprises, Inc.

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Nora Bayes With her children aboard the S.S. Leviathan, 1924. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111460 ).

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Bayes, Nora (29 November 1880–19 March 1928), singer and comedienne, was born Theodora Goldberg in Joliet, Illinois, the daughter of Elias Goldberg, a merchant, and Rachel Miller. The product of local public schools, which she left to enter vaudeville, the young Dora Goldberg was largely self-taught musically. She had already made her debut at the Hopkins Theatre in Chicago and had become “Nora Bayes” when, at eighteen, she received her first acclaim at the Hyde and Behman vaudeville theater in Chicago, singing comic songs in dialect while impersonating Yiddish and Irish stereotypical characters then fashionable in vaudeville....

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Borge, Victor (03 January 1909–23 December 2000), entertainer, was born Borge (pronounced BOR-guh) Rosenbaum in Copenhagen, Denmark, to Bernhard Rosenbaum, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, and Frederikke Lichtinger. His father was a violinist long associated with the Royal Danish Symphony, which also performed with the local opera company; his mother was a classical pianist. Borge grew up in a secular household surrounded by music. He was especially drawn to opera, and early on he aspired to become an opera conductor. He began piano lessons with his mother at the age of three and was quickly proclaimed a prodigy. After making his concert debut in Copenhagen five years later, he continued his studies on a scholarship at the Copenhagen Music Conservatory....

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Victor Borge. Charcoal, conte... on paper, c.1954-1959, by René Robert Bouché. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Fanny Brice. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-101799).

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Brice, Fanny (29 October 1891–29 May 1951), comedienne and singer, was born Fania Borach in New York City, the daughter of Charles Borach, a bartender, and Rose Stern. The third of four children, all born on New York’s Lower East Side, she was raised in a Newark, New Jersey, middle-class home complete with household servants and material comforts. Her parents separated in 1902, and Rose moved the family to St. Marks Place in Brooklyn, New York, where Fanny got the remnants of her formal education at public schools....

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Cousin Emmy (1903–11 April 1980), country singer, banjoist, and comedian, was born Cynthia May Carver near Lamb, a hamlet in south central Kentucky near Glasgow. The youngest of eight children, she grew up in a log cabin while her father tried to make ends meet working as a sharecropper raising tobacco. Her family was musical, and she learned old English and Scottish ballads from her great-grandmother. As she grew up, she became proficient on a number of instruments, ranging from the orthodox (fiddle, banjo, guitar) to the unusual (the rubber glove, the Jew’s harp, the hand saw). A natural “show off” and entertainer, by around 1915 she was leaving the farm and trying her hand at entertaining in nearby towns. Having no real interest in school, she taught herself to read by studying mail order catalogues....

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Ford, Whitey (12 May 1901–20 June 1986), vaudeville and country musician and comedian, also known as the Duke of Paducah, was born in DeSoto, Missouri, fifty miles from St. Louis. The names and occupations of his parents are unknown. When he was one year old his mother died, and he was sent to Little Rock, Arkansas, to be reared by a grandmother. Ford attended Peabody Grammar School, acting in school plays and performing in talent shows. He ran away at age seventeen to join the navy during World War I and served four years. During this time he practiced on the tenor banjo, at that time a competitor with the guitar, until he became an accomplished performer. ...

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Haley, Jack (10 August 1899–06 June 1979), comedian, singer, and dancer, was born John Haley in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of John Haley, a ship’s navigator, and Ellen Curley. Haley’s desire to be in show business began in childhood, when he appeared in a church entertainment at the age of six. After completing his schooling at Boston English High School, he became an apprentice electrician at his mother’s urging. As soon as he had saved up some of his apprentice earnings, however, he left to make his way on the stage....

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Hewlett, James S. (fl. 1821–1831), actor and singer, , is said to have been born on Long Island, New York, presumably toward the end of the eighteenth century. His parents are unknown, and nothing is known about his childhood. As a young man he worked as steward on passenger ships, and he is said to have been an avid playgoer. In 1820 New York City had a black population of about 11,000, out of a total of about 125,000. The one theater in town, the Park, admitted African Americans to only a section of one of the balconies. When ...

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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....

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Danny Kaye Entertaining 4,000 5th Marine Division troops in Sasebo, Japan. Courtesy of the National Archives (NWDNS-127-N-138204).

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Charles W. Carey Jr.

Kaye, Danny (18 January 1913–03 March 1987), entertainer, was born David Daniel Kaminski in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Jacob Kaminski, a tailor, and Clara Nemerovsky. He dropped out of high school during his sophomore year and hitchhiked with a friend to Miami Beach, Florida, to become professional song-and-dance men. After returning to Brooklyn two weeks later, he worked as a soda jerk, office clerk, and insurance appraiser by day and performed at private parties by night. In 1929 he went to work at White Roe Lake House in New York’s Catskill Mountains as a tummler, an entertainer who amused the guests during their every waking hour. For the next four summers he performed at White Roe as Danny Kaye and unsuccessfully sought work on Broadway during the winter....

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Lillie, Beatrice (29 May 1894–20 January 1989), comic actress, was born Beatrice Gladys Lillie in Toronto, Canada, the younger of two daughters of John Lillie, a schoolmaster, and Lucy Ann Shaw Lillie. Educated in Toronto and at St Agnes College in Belleville, Ontario, Canada, Lillie was sometimes known as Gladys Monteil when appearing with her mother and sister Muriel onstage in Canada....

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Beatrice Lillie A publicity photograph for High Spirits, c. 1965. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Pearl, Minnie (25 October 1912–04 March 1996), entertainer, was born Sarah Ophelia Colley in Centerville, Tennessee, to Thomas K. Colley, a lumberman, and Fannie Tate House Colley, a pianist and prominent suffragist. The youngest of five daughters, she grew up in a prosperous household, and her flair for dramatics and music, evident at an early age, was encouraged by the family. She sang and gave dramatic readings in public during her childhood, and by her teens she had decided to become a stage actress. She planned to attend a women's college in the East and then go on to drama school, but during her senior year in high school the stock market crash of 1929 occurred and her father was unable to pay for such an expensive education. Instead, she enrolled in the fall of 1930 at Ward-Belmont College, an exclusive girls' finishing school in Nashville that had an outstanding drama department. Although she felt initially out of place among her far more elegant classmates, she perfected her acting skills there, entertaining at campus events and becoming one of the school's most popular students....

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Minnie Pearl In costume, 1957. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.