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Backus, Charles (20 October 1831–21 June 1883), actor and minstrel troupe founder, was born in Rochester, New York, the son of a prominent physician. His parents’ names are unknown. Backus’s grandfather Azel Backus was the first president of Hamilton College and a deeply religious man. Despite the Backus family plans of a literary or professional career for Charley, the young boy’s affinity for comedic imitation was apparent from his earliest school days. After completing his public school education, Backus made his acting debut in 1851 in the role of Jerry Clip in ...

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Bryant, Dan (09 May 1833–10 April 1875), actor and musician, was born Daniel Webster O’Brien in Troy, New York, the son of Timothy O’Brien, a wood craftsman, and Margaret Duggan, a fiddlemaker. The youngest of three brothers, all blackface minstrels, Bryant made his debut in 1845 carried onstage in a sack at his eldest brother Jerry’s benefit at the Vauxhall Gardens in New York City. He appeared as a jig dancer in 1848 at the Pantheon Theatre in New York and at Thalian Hall a year later in the same city. In the early 1850s he performed with several minstrel troupes, including Charley White’s, Woods and Fellows, and Morris and Campbell’s. By 1856 he was comanaging the company known as Bryant and Mallory’s Campbell’s Minstrels....

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Burnett, Alfred (02 November 1824–04 April 1884), entertainer and journalist, was born in Bungay, Suffolk, England. The names of his parents and other facts about his early life are unknown. In 1828 he was sent to live with an aunt in New York City. After four years of schooling in Utica, New York, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1836. He later became proprietor of a confectionery business and by 1860 owned three such establishments....

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Goodwin, Nathaniel C., Jr. (25 July 1857–31 January 1919), comedian and actor, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Nathaniel C. Goodwin, Sr., a professional gambler, and Caroline Hinkel. Goodwin attended a private school in Maine. Then at an early age he became a dry goods clerk in Boston, only to be fired for showing up late and doing imitations of the customers. After two years of lessons with a retired actor, which started when he was thirteen, he began to give readings of Shakespeare but found more success in programs of impersonations of entertainers. In his stage debut as a performer, in ...

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Hart, Tony (25 July 1855–04 November 1891), actor and singer, was born Anthony Cannon in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of Anthony Cannon and Mary Sweeney, both of whom had emigrated from Ireland. He put on amateur performances as a child, but a pattern of delinquency began with disruptions at school and culminated in the near murder of a rival during a performance; his parents placed him in the Lyman School (a state reformatory at Westborough, outside Worcester) in 1865. He escaped several months later and traveled to Boston, where he supported himself as a singer, a bootblack, and a newsboy, and then to Providence, where he sang and danced in saloons and was dubbed Master Antonio by a saloon keeper. He joined a touring circus, and then Billy Arlington’s Minstrels; in 1870, at age fifteen, he joined Madame Rentz’s Female Minstrels. Dressed as a little girl, he evoked tears with a sentimental song, “Put Me in My Little Bed.”...

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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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Herbert G. Goldman

Irwin, May (27 June 1862–22 October 1938), comedienne, was born Georgia Campbell in Whitby, Ontario, Canada, the daughter of Robert E. Campbell, a businessman, and Jane Draper. Georgia and her older sister Ada sang in the local Episcopal church choir and frequently performed duets for the entertainment of family friends. They attended school at St. Cecilia Convent in Port Hope, Ontario, until 1875, when their father failed in business and their mother, seeking to support the family, put them on the stage. The sisters made their debut at the Theatre Comique in Rochester, New York, on 8 February 1875, billed by manager Daniel Shelby as “May and Flo, the Irwin Sisters.” They continued touring for two years, performing African-American dialect songs like “Don’t You Hear Dem Bells?” Jane Campbell all but ran her daughters’ careers for some years. “I never make a move without consulting her,” May said at age thirty-four, “and if she doesn’t like a song, that settles it” ( ...

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Kelly, Walter C. (29 October 1873–07 January 1939), comedian and actor, was born in Mineville, New York, the son of John Kelly, an insurance broker, and Mary (maiden name unknown). Growing up in Mineville, Kelly became a machinist’s apprentice, and while still in his teens he left his hometown to work in the shipyards of Newport News, Virginia....

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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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Mabel Normand. [left to right] Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Mabel Normand, c. 1915, in one of their Keystone films. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-10081).

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Normand, Mabel (09 November 1892–23 February 1930), silent screen comedienne, was born in Staten Island, New York, the daughter of Claude G. Normand, a stage carpenter and pit pianist, and Mary Drury. Mabel was a backstage child, and there is no evidence that she received any formal education....

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Raymond, John T. (05 April 1836–10 April 1887), comic actor, was born in Buffalo, New York, to a family named O’Brian or O’Brien. Nothing more is known about his parents, his early education, or why and when he chose his stage name. Raymond began his acting career in 1853 at the Rochester Theatre in New York, playing the role of Lopez in a little-known play called ...

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Lillian Russell Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-91178).

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Russell, Lillian (04 December 1861–06 June 1922), entertainer, actress, and singer, was born Helen Louise Leonard in Clinton, Iowa, to a well-to-do family. Her father, Charles E. Leonard, was the publisher of the local newspaper, the Clinton Herald, and her mother, Cynthia Howland Van Name, was an early and ardent feminist. Her family moved to Chicago in 1865, and she attended local schools, completing her formal education at the Park Institute, a finishing school. However, as she later recalled, her most significant education occurred at home: “Our family was a musical one. We sang and danced and played, and all my sisters had exceptionally fine voices, which were carefully trained.” Her parents subsequently divorced after separating in 1877, and, with her mother and sisters, she moved to New York City. Within a short time, she secured a chorus part in Edward E. Rice’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ...

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Fay Templeton Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111856).

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Templeton, Fay (25 December 1866–03 October 1939), actress, singer, and comedienne, was born in modest circumstances in Little Rock, Arkansas, the daughter of John Templeton and Alice Vane. She began her stage career playing Cupid, and on 19 August 1873 she played Puck in ...