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Armstrong, Harry (22 July 1879–28 February 1951), vaudeville performer, pianist, and popular composer, was born Henry Worthington Armstrong in Somerville, Massachusetts, the son of Henry Armstrong, a piano salesman, and Elizabeth Stuart. Armstrong competed as a professional boxer before joining a street corner vocal quartet in Boston in 1896. He moved to New York in 1898 and played piano in a restaurant in Coney Island and later at the Sans Souci Music Hall in Manhattan. He composed and performed his own songs, many of which were published by the firm of M. Witmark, where Armstrong worked as a rehearsal pianist....

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Barton, James Edward (01 November 1890–19 February 1962), vaudeville performer and actor, was born in Gloucester, New Jersey, the son of James Charles Barton, an interlocutor with the West and Primrose Minstrels, and Clara Anderson, a vaudeville performer. At age two Barton was carried on stage by his parents in a production of ...

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Beck, Martin (31 August 1865–16 November 1940), vaudeville manager, was born in German Czechoslovakia. Little is known of his early years. At about the age of eighteen he immigrated to the United States as part of a troupe of European actors. Beck’s first theatrical experience was as a German actor, appearing at the Thalia Theater in New York and later with the Waldamer Stock Company in St. Louis. The group was not successful in America and soon broke up. Having no means of livelihood, Beck turned to any form of endeavor that would enable him to survive. After working at a number of menial jobs he turned up in Chicago as a waiter in a music hall where he also served as part-time bartender, earning the nickname “Two Beers Beck.” The year was 1893, and the World’s Fair was in full swing. Beck’s previous theatrical experience came in handy, and he soon found work as a part-time stage manager. Other jobs followed, and he quickly rose to the position of house manager and then bookkeeper....

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Bricktop (14 August 1894–31 January 1984), entertainer and nightclub operator, was born in Alderson, West Virginia, the daughter of Thomas Smith, a barber, and Hattie E. (maiden name unknown), a domestic worker. Christened Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia, because her parents did not wish to disappoint the various neighbors and friends who offered suggestions for naming her, Bricktop received her nickname because of her red hair when she was in her late twenties from Barron Wilkins, owner of a nightclub called Barron’s Exclusive Club in Prohibition Harlem....

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John W. Bubbles As Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1935. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-114802).

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Bubbles, John (19 February 1902–18 May 1986), tap dancer and vaudevillian, was born John William Sublett in Louisville, Kentucky, where he attended grammar and high school. His parents’ names are unknown. He began entertaining in his neighborhood as a singer beginning when he was about seven. For a time, he worked in vaudeville in Louisville and on the road. While working as a pin setter at a local bowling alley, Sublett met Ford Lee Washington. They formed a vaudeville act called “Buck and Bubbles” in 1915, with Sublett taking the name of “Bubbles” while Washington became “Buck.” Until Washington’s death on 31 January 1955, they worked together to become one of vaudeville’s legendary acts....

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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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Clark, Bobby (16 June 1888–12 February 1960), clown, was born Robert Edwin Clark in a church rectory (his grandfather was the church sexton) in Springfield, Ohio, the son of Victor Brown Clark, a railroad conductor, and Alice Marilla Sneed. His father died when Bobby was six. As a young boy Clark sang in the church choir and played the bugle. His fascination with outlandish costumes, which became one of his theatrical trademarks, was apparent at an early age. When he was in the fourth grade Bobby met Paul McCullough, four years his senior, and a close friendship was formed that lasted over thirty-five years. The two boys soon put together a bugling and tumbling act that they performed at the local YMCA. Clark and McCullough’s act was received so favorably by the residents of the area that, at the ages of seventeen and twenty-one, respectively, they decided to embark upon a career in show business. They began to place advertisements in various theatrical publications. The response was favorable and Clark and McCullough, as they now called themselves, were hired by a minstrel troupe as tumblers, buglers, and handymen, with a combined weekly salary of twenty-five dollars. They were on their way....

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Cline, Maggie (01 January 1857–11 June 1934), entertainer, was born Margaret Cline in Haverhill, Massachusetts, the daughter of Patrick B. Cline and Ann Degman. Educated in Haverhill’s public schools, Maggie worked in a show factory before running away from home with a traveling theatrical company at the age of fifteen....

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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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Coles, Honi (02 April 1911–12 November 1992), tap dancer, raconteur, and stage, vaudeville, and television performer, was born Charles Coles in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of George Coles and Isabel (maiden name unknown). He learned to tap dance on the streets of Philadelphia, where dancers challenged each other in time step “cutting” contests, and made his New York debut at the Lafayette Theater in 1931 as one of the Three Millers, a group that performed over-the-tops, barrel turns, and wings on six-foot-high pedestals. After discovering that his partners had hired another dancer to replace him, Coles retreated to Philadelphia, determined to perfect his technique. He returned to New York City in 1934, confident and skilled in his ability to cram several steps into a bar of music. Performing at the Harlem Opera House and Apollo Theatre, he was reputed to have the fastest feet in show business. And at the Hoofer’s Club, where only the most serious tap dancers gathered to compete, he was hailed as one of the most graceful dancers ever seen....

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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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Dockstader, Lew (07 August 1856–26 October 1924), minstrel-vaudevillian, was born George Alfred Clapp in Hartford, Connecticut, the son of Chester Clapp, a bartender, and Harriet Gouge. Dockstader’s aptitude for the life of a minstrel appeared during his childhood years. He could play any musical instrument he picked up, yet until he was seventeen he confined his talents to an amateur minstrel band that brought him only local fame. He made his professional debut in 1873, joining the Earl, Emmet and Wilde Minstrels; at the same time he took the professional name of Lew Dockstader. A year later he toured the country with the Whitmore and Clark Minstrels, achieving great popularity with his song “Peter, You’re in Luck This Morning.” (Every minstrel show was a virtual potpourri consisting of softshoe dancing, comedy routines, brisk songs, and sentimental ballads. All of them were performed by white artists made up in blackface, who played on African-American stereotypes purportedly originating in the South.)...

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James Ross Moore

Dolly Sisters, identical-twin celebrities, were born Janszieka Deutsch and Roszika Deutsch (25 Oct. 1892—1 June 1941) in Budapest, Hungary, to Julius Deutsch, a tailor, and his wife Margaret Weiss, a painter. Janszieka became known as Jenny Dolly; her sister as Rosa Dolly. Raised and educated in Queens, at age eight the Dollys were performing with an acrobatic troupe; by 1909 they were dancing at ...

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See Dolly Sisters

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See Dolly Sisters

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Duncan, Rosetta (23 November 1896–04 December 1959), comic performer and singer, was born in Acero, Illinois, the daughter of Samuel Henry Duncan, a real estate agent, and Charlotte Rosetta Duncan.

At an early age Rosetta was tutored by Madame Ellen Beach Yaw, an acclaimed American coloratura soprano, who saw great potential in Rosetta’s comedic ability and an exceptional contralto voice. By 1915 Rosetta and her sister Vivian performed a yodeling act in San Francisco amateur shows, with Rosetta also doing a solo act as “a Dutch Boy yodeler.”...

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Eltinge, Julian (14 May 1883–07 March 1941), female impersonator, was born William Julian Dalton in Newtonville, Massachusetts, the son of Joseph Dalton, a mining engineer, and Julia Edna Baker. His father’s profession took him to the West, where Julian went to schools in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Butte, Montana, as well as in Boston on his family’s return there. He was working as a clerk in a dry goods store at $3.50 a week when he auditioned for the First Corps Cadets of Boston, an all-male amateur theatrical troupe noted for the plausibility of its female impersonations. He played the small role of Mignonette in Robert A. Barnet’s burlesque ...