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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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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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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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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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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....

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Kovacs, Ernie (23 January 1919–13 January 1962), television comedian and actor, was born Ernest Edward Kovacs in Trenton, New Jersey, the son of Andrew John Kovacs (András János Kovács), a policeman, and Mary Chebonick (Maria Csebenyák). His parents’ Hungarian heritage was an essential part of Kovacs’s upbringing; he grew up bilingual in an ethnic working-class neighborhood near the Trenton riverfront. The family’s financial situation improved when Kovacs’s father left the police department to become a bootlegger. Kovacs’s parents were ostentatious spenders who doted on him. They dressed him in velvet and allowed him to have a pony, an unlikely pet for an urban family. When Prohibition ended, the family opened a restaurant, where Kovacs would treat his playmates to desserts....

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Lahr, Bert (13 August 1895–04 December 1967), comedian and actor, was born Irving Lahrheim in New York City, the son of Jacob Lahrheim, an upholsterer, and Augusta (maiden name unknown). Lahr detested school and left New York’s Public School 40, where he had been funny onstage, simply to take a job, any job. He abandoned fifteen jobs before succeeding in a tryout for the Loew’s variety show circuit. At age fifteen he joined the Seven Frolics and traveled to Chicago; later, he was one of the Nine Crazy Kids....

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Laurel, Stan (16 June 1890–23 February 1965), and Oliver Hardy (18 January 1892–07 August 1957), comic actors, were born, respectively, in Ulverston, Lancashire, England, and Harlem, Georgia. Stan, born Arthur Stanley Jefferson, was the son of Arthur J. Jefferson, an actor-manager, and Madge Metcalfe, an actress in Jefferson’s troupe. Oliver, born Norvell Hardy, was the son of Oliver Hardy, a lawyer, and Emily Norvell. Joining together as Laurel and Hardy in 1927, the duo became the first important comedy team in American film history....

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Lillie, Beatrice (29 May 1894–20 January 1989), comic actress, was born Beatrice Gladys Lillie in Toronto, Canada, the younger of two daughters of John Lillie, a schoolmaster, and Lucy Ann Shaw Lillie. Educated in Toronto and at St Agnes College in Belleville, Ontario, Canada, Lillie was sometimes known as Gladys Monteil when appearing with her mother and sister Muriel onstage in Canada....

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Lloyd, Harold (20 April 1893–08 March 1971), film comedian, was born Harold Clayton Lloyd in Burchard, Nebraska, the son of James Darsie Lloyd, a shoe salesman, and Elizabeth Fraser. A chance meeting on a street in Omaha with theatrical producer John Lane Connor led the ten-year-old Lloyd to a lifelong concern with the theater. Connor taught the boy the art of makeup and began using him in minor roles. At eighteen, the now seasoned Lloyd became an instructor in the San Diego School of Expression, a later Connor enterprise, where he taught fencing, dancing, and elocution. In 1913 the Edison Film Company, based in Hollywood, arrived in San Diego to shoot some scenes for one of their westerns. Lloyd and a dozen or so students at the school were hired as extras. Using his makeup skills, he played a variety of roles for Edison....

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See Ritz Brothers

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See Ritz Brothers

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See Ritz Brothers

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Skelton, Red (18 July 1913–17 September 1997), actor and comedian, was born Richard Bernard Skelton in Vincennes, Indiana, the son of Joseph Skelton and Ida Mae Skelton (maiden name not known). Although 1913 is commonly cited as the year of his birth, some sources say he was born in either 1906 or 1910. The father, a clown and roustabout in a traveling circus, died of drink before Skelton was born. The boy and his three bullying brothers were raised in poverty by their overworked charwoman mother. At age seven, Red, as he was called, was a paperboy and sang for extra pennies on the street. He also held other menial jobs. At twelve, while performing in a medicine show he accidentally fell off the stage and broke some bottles, delighted the crowd, and was promptly hired to go on summer tour in Indiana, Arkansas, Illinois, and Missouri. His routine featured pratfalls, but he also sang in blackface. At fourteen, he quit school to work on an Ohio and Missouri river showboat doing monologues and singing and joking in blackface, toured with an ...