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Adams, Don (13 April 1923–25 September 2005), comedian and actor, was born Donald James Yarmy in New York City, the second of the three children of William Yarmy, a restaurant manager, and Consuelo Morgan. Adams, who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, liked to read and draw but had an aversion to New York public schools. Much of his youth was spent frequenting the movie theaters on 42nd Street, where he believed he received a better education. At parties he and his neighborhood friends, a number of whom also forged careers in show business, tried to top each other performing comic bits. Adams's forte became impersonations of the Hollywood stars of the day....

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Allen, Fred (31 May 1894–17 March 1956), humorist, was born John Florence Sullivan in Somerville, Massachusetts, the son of James Henry Sullivan, a bookbinder, and Cecilia Herlihy. Allen and his younger brother were raised by their aunt Elizabeth Herlihy Lovely, following the death of their mother in 1897. The boys remained a part of their aunt’s extended, working-class, Irish-American family when their brooding, alcoholic father remarried in 1909, residing in Allston and later the Dorchester section of Boston. Allen graduated from Boston’s High School of Commerce in 1911 but did not seek a business career. Among James’s few contributions to his son’s life in comedy was the job of bookrunner that Allen filled, beginning at age fourteen, in the Boston Public Library, his father’s employer. While awaiting call slips in the stacks, Allen read about comedy and practiced juggling. Fascinated with vaudeville, America’s most popular live amusement in 1910, and a hanger-on in Boston’s theatrical district, he appeared as a comic juggler in the library’s employee talent show in the summer of 1911. Soon he was a frequent contestant in amateur vaudeville shows in the Boston area, earning sufficient prize money to encourage him to declare professional status in 1912. Although one-night stands took Allen’s act as far afield as Maine and Connecticut, in September 1914 the young actor moved to New York....

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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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Arbuckle, Roscoe “Fatty” (24 March 1887–29 June 1933), actor, was born Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle in Smith Center, Kansas, the son of William Arbuckle, a wheat farmer. His mother's name and occupation are unknown. At birth, he weighed approximately fourteen pounds; his mother almost died during the delivery, and her health remained tenuous throughout his childhood. His father, an alcoholic, blamed him for her condition and routinely beat him and berated him about his weight. Around 1889 his family moved to Santa Ana, California. Shortly thereafter his father moved alone to northern California, where he worked as a crop picker and eventually purchased a small hotel in San Jose....

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Bergen, Edgar (16 February 1903–30 September 1978), actor and ventriloquist, was born Edgar John Berggren in Chicago, Illinois, the son of John Berggren and Nell Swanson, stolid Swedish immigrants who lived in various places in Illinois and for a time owned a dairy farm in Michigan. From an early age Edgar was attracted to show business, especially to local fairs, circuses, and vaudeville. At age eleven he sent off a quarter for “The Wizard’s Manual,” which taught, among other things, “Secrets of Magic, Black Art, Mind Reading, Ventriloquism, and Hypnotism.” Edgar found all of these arts attractive and shortly was performing magic tricks and ventriloquism for his family and neighborhood children....

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Blackstone, Harry, Jr. (30 June 1934–14 May 1997), magician, was born Harry Bouton Blackstone, Jr., in Three Rivers, Michigan, the son of Harry Blackstone, a noted magician, and Mildred Phinney Blackstone, who assisted her husband in his shows. The younger Blackstone allegedly made his stage debut as an infant, carried on by his mother when she was unable to find a babysitter. By the age of four he was appearing regularly onstage as his parents toured the country, and like the children of most magicians he learned his father's tricks. He enjoyed performing, and it seemed natural that he, too, would become a magician; but throughout his childhood his father made it clear that young Harry was to get a formal education and prepare himself for a “real” profession....

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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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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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Burns, George (20 January 1896–09 March 1996), comedian, was born Nathan Birnbaum in New York City, the son of Louis Philip Birnbaum, a kosher butcher and part-time cantor, and Dora Bluth. One of twelve children, Burns spent his childhood living in poverty in the tenements of Manhattan's Lower East Side. Indifferent to his parents' Orthodox Judaism, Burns adopted show business as his religion at age five when he got his first taste of applause by dancing to the music of an organ grinder. A natural entertainer, Burns had little interest in the rigors of education and quit school permanently after he failed the fifth grade. Even though he enjoyed enormous wealth and celebrity in later years, for the rest of his life Burns would never master basic reading skills....

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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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Davenport, Ira Erastus (17 September 1839–08 July 1911), and William Henry Harrison Davenport (01 February 1841–01 July 1877), mediums and stage magicians, were born in Buffalo, New York, the sons of Ira Davenport, a police officer, and Virtue Honeysett. Following publicity about ...

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See Davenport, Ira Erastus

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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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Fields, W. C. (29 January 1880–25 December 1946), comedian in vaudeville, film, and radio, was born William Claude Dukenfield in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the eldest son of James Dukenfield, an Englishman, and Kate Felton of Philadelphia. (A number of different dates have been reported for Fields’s birth; the one given here is the most widely accepted.) His background was working-class poor. Fields’s earliest recollections revolved around a sense of deprivation that despite his later affluence and popularity constantly gnawed at him. He always suffered from the knowledge of poverty and once wrote: “I was the oldest child. We were all very poor, but I was poor first.” In his early years, especially after separating from his family, Fields often engaged in petty thievery and scams, which occasionally landed him in jail. His fear of being penniless, an anxiety heightened by the stock market crash of 1929, led him to deposit his earnings under various pseudonymous accounts in different banks around the country, some of which have never been located. In contractual negotiations with small-town theater managers as well as with Broadway impresarios, Fields was known as an especially hard bargainer, even after becoming one of the highest paid performers in the business....

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Gleason, Jackie (26 February 1916–24 June 1987), actor and comedian, was born Herbert John Gleason in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Herbert Gleason, an insurance company clerk, and Mae Kelly. Gleason’s parents drank heavily and quarreled frequently but instilled in him strong Catholic sentiments. His overprotective mother kept him out of school until the age of eight. The best times of Gleason’s childhood occurred when his father took him to neighborhood theaters. Vaudeville shows and silent film comedies captured the boy’s imagination. He began to perform for his schoolmates and was master of ceremonies for the graduation show staged by his eighth-grade class. In December 1925 Gleason’s father disappeared; his mother took a job selling tokens for the BMT subway....

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See Laurel, Stan

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Hope, Bob (30 May 1903–17 July 2003), comedian, was born Leslie Townes Hope in Eltham, England, the son of William Henry Hope, known as Harry, a stonemason, and Avis Townes Hope. His father drank heavily and worked irregularly; his mother had been orphaned as a child and reared in a foster family that promoted her training to be a concert singer, a dream that ended when as a teenager Avis impulsively married Harry Hope. Young Leslie, the fifth of seven boys in the family, shared his mother's vocal talent; he also showed a gift for mimicry even as a toddler, and his mother encouraged him to sing and dance at family and neighborhood events....

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Houdini, Harry (24 March 1874–31 October 1926), magician and escape artist, was born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary, the son of Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss and Cecelia Steiner. In 1878 the family immigrated to Appleton, Wisconsin. The town’s small Jewish congregation hired Mayer Samuel as its rabbi but released him after four years. He began a hapless twelve-year search for a settled rabbinical post to support his wife and seven children and was reduced to accepting provisions from a relief society and selling part of his scholarly library. Young Ehrich once ran away from home and later recalled the period as “hard and cruel years when I rarely had the bare necessities of life.”...

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Jolson, Al (26 May 1886–23 October 1950), singer and entertainer, was born Asa Yoelson in Seredzius, Lithuania, the son of Moses Reuben Yoelson, a rabbi and cantor, and Naomi Cantor. Brought to the United States in 1894, Jolson was educated at the Jefferson Public School in Washington, D.C., before entering the theatrical profession in 1900 as a singer with the Victoria Burlesquers. Jolson subsequently teamed with Fred E. Moore in a singing act featuring stereopticon slides, but his career as a “boy tenor” ended when his voice changed. He and his elder brother, Harry, performed together as “The Hebrew and the Cadet” prior to joining Joe Palmer as Jolson, Palmer and Jolson in “A Little of Everything,” an act that toured the major vaudeville circuits beginning in late 1904. Jolson first performed in blackface at this time....

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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....