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Josephine Baker Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1949. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-93000).

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Baker, Josephine (03 June 1906–12 April 1975), dancer, singer, and civil rights activist, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Eddie Carson, a musician, and Carrie Macdonald. Her parents parted when Josephine was still an infant, and her mother married Arthur Martin, which has led to some confusion about her maiden name. Very little is known about her childhood, except that she was a witness to the East St. Louis riot in 1917. This event was often a feature of her talks in the 1950s and 1960s about racism and the fight for equality, which fostered the oft-repeated assertion that the family was resident in East St. Louis. Before the age of eighteen Josephine had been married twice, first to Willie Wells and then to William Baker, to whom she was married in Camden, New Jersey, in September 1921....

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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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Groody, Louise (26 March 1897–16 September 1961), musical comedy dancer and singer, was born in Waco, Texas, the daughter of Thomas J. Groody and Irene Ingraham. She spent her early years in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with dancing lessons as her principal education. While still a child Groody began winning contests at the carnivals on the city’s Steel Pier and at the age of fourteen began dancing professionally in vaudeville. Later she joined the chorus of ...

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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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Lewis, Ted (06 June 1890–25 August 1971), entertainer, musician, and bandleader, was born Theodore Leopold Friedman in rural Circleville, Ohio, the son of an owner of a dry goods store whose name cannot be ascertained. Young Theodore began his show business career performing in a nickelodeon in his hometown and learned to play the clarinet in his school band. As a beginning clarinetist, Lewis was something of a prodigy. Although he was never regarded seriously as a musician, he played easily and improvised naturally. Having no desire to go into the dry goods business and still in his teens, he went to Columbus, Ohio, where for a time he demonstrated instruments in a music store. His freewheeling improvisations amused customers but eventually caused him to lose the job....

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Mills, Florence (25 January 1895–01 November 1927), entertainer, was born Florence Winfree in Washington, D.C., the daughter of John Winfree, a carpenter, and Nellie Simons, who did laundry. Educated locally, by age five Mills was winning contests in cakewalking and buck dancing. Her first professional engagement came as Baby Florence Mills in the second company (1902) of the Williams-Walker ...

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Miranda, Carmen (09 February 1909–05 August 1955), star of stage, screen, and recordings, was born Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha in Marco de Canaveses, a small town in Portugal, the daughter of Jose Maria Pinto da Cunha, a barber, and Maria Emilia Miranda. Her father immigrated to Brazil in 1909, and the family followed when Miranda was three. “Carmen,” as she was always called, grew up in Rio’s Lapa waterfront district, a haven for sailors and prostitutes. At a convent school Miranda became interested in singing. She later told interviewers, “From a very early age, I knew I felt the need to be in show business.” When Olinda, the eldest daughter, died in 1923, Miranda quit school to work as a window decorator and as a salesclerk in a hat shop. She learned broken English from watching American movies, especially westerns. She modeled hats and began making them for society clients....

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Rooney, Pat (04 July 1880–09 September 1962), vaudeville, musical theater, and nightclub performer, was born Patrick James Rooney, Jr., in New York City, the son of Patrick James Rooney, Sr., and Josie Granger, entertainers. His mother had danced in the chorus of The Black Crook...

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Stratton, Eugene (08 May 1861–15 September 1918), music hall artiste, was born Eugene Augustus Ruhlmann in Buffalo, New York, the son of George Ruhlmann, an Alsatian saloonkeeper, and his wife Mary (maiden name unknown). Stratton’s American career was typical of its era. In later life he recalled attending the Christian Brothers school and working as a telegraph messenger, practicing acrobatics and dancing “five or six hours daily” (quoted in Barker). At age ten he teamed up with “a great big fellow” named Lesley, who would toss him around during their burnt-cork act, “The Big and the Little of It,” at Dan Shelby’s Saloon. Stratton next soloed as Master Jean, dancer and tumbler, and by age thirteen reckoned he had become “something of a champion in a small way.” Before he was fifteen he had played in a ...

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See Williams, Bert

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Webb, Clifton (19 November 1891?–13 October 1966), dancer, singer, and stage and screen actor, was born Webb Parmalee Hollenbeck in Indianapolis, Indiana, the son of Jacob Grant Hollenbeck, a railroad traffic manager, and Maybelle Parmalee. Sources differ concerning his date of birth, listing it variously from 1891 to 1896. Webb’s parents separated after a move to New York City while he was still a child. His mother was a classic example of a “stage mother” and her son’s constant companion. She encouraged his early interest and talents in the arts. In 1900 Webb was chosen from a dancing school to play Cholly in ...

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Williams, Bert (12 November 1874–04 March 1922), and George Walker (1873–06 January 1911), stage entertainers, were born, respectively, Egbert Austin Williams in Nassau, the Bahamas, and George Williams Walker in Lawrence, Kansas. Williams was the son of Frederick Williams, Jr., a waiter, and Julia Monceur. Walker was the son of “Nash” Walker, a policeman; his mother’s name is unknown. Williams moved with his family to Riverside, California, in 1885 and attended Riverside High School. Walker began performing “darkey” material for traveling medicine shows during his boyhood and left Kansas with Dr. Waite’s medicine show. In 1893 the two met in San Francisco, where they first worked together in Martin and Selig’s Minstrels....