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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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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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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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Bland, James Allen (22 October 1854–05 May 1911), African-American minstrel performer and composer, was born in Flushing, Long Island, New York, the son of Allen M. Bland, an incipient lawyer, and Lidia Ann Cromwell of Brandywine, Delaware, of an emancipated family. Bland’s father, whose family had been free for several generations, attended law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and in 1867 became the first black to be appointed an examiner in the U.S. Patent Office....

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Emmett, Daniel Decatur (29 October 1815–28 June 1904), minstrel, stage performer, and composer, was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, the son of Abraham Emmett, a blacksmith, and Sarah Zerrick. His brother Lafayette Emmett achieved prominence as the first chief justice of Minnesota. Coming from sparsely populated Knox County in central Ohio (frontier land in 1815), Emmett had little schooling but apparently gained a substantial degree of literacy in his early teens through his work as an apprentice for two newspapers, the ...

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Fields, Benny (14 June 1894–16 August 1959), performer, was born Benjamin Geisenfeld in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Nothing is known about his parents and little is known of his early life other than that he started singing at the age of five. He entered show business in his teens and soon became known as “the minstrel man of vaudeville.” Fields was primarily a vocalist, sometimes doing a solo act but often performing as a member of a team or trio. In 1920 he was appearing with the Fields, Davis and Salisbury trio in a second-rate nightclub in Chicago when he met Blossom Seeley, a popular blues singer during vaudeville’s heyday. Fields always insisted that it was Seeley who really discovered him. The two became romantically linked and were married in 1922. With Fields doing the comedy and a bit of vocalizing, they soon became a successful team in vaudeville. In 1925 ...