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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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Astaire, Fred (10 May 1899–22 June 1987), dancer, film star, and choreographer, was born in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of Frederick Austerlitz, an immigrant Austrian brewery employee, and Ann Geilus. Astaire’s sister, Adele Astaire, showed unusual talent in early dancing school recitals and was taken to New York in 1904 by her mother for professional training. Her brother, younger by a year and a half, was enrolled in dancing school with her. In 1906, when Fred was only seven, the two children began performing successfully in vaudeville....

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Autry, Gene (29 September 1908–02 October 1998), country singer, actor, and baseball team owner, was born Orvon Gene Autry in Tioga, Texas, the son of Delbert Autry, a livestock dealer and tenant farmer, and Elnora Ozmont Autry. He later recalled that his family was poor but “never Tobacco Road poor. My father earned good money, when he felt like it, which was some of the time” (Autry, p. 4). They moved frequently during his childhood, to small farms and hamlets in northern Texas and southern Oklahoma, eventually settling outside Ravia, Oklahoma. His grandfather, a Baptist minister, taught him to sing when he was five years old so he could join the church choir; his musically talented mother taught him how to play a mail-order guitar. As a teenager he sang ballads for tips at cafes, and around 1923 he toured for three months with the Fields Brothers Marvelous Medicine Show. During these years he was reportedly fired from a job as a ranch hand because his singing distracted the other hands from their labor....

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Ayres, Lew (28 December 1908–30 December 1996), actor, was born Lewis Frederick Ayres III in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (No information about his parents could be obtained for this article, although it is assumed that he shared his father's name.) After graduating from high school in San Diego, California, he attended the University of Arizona, planning to earn a medical degree. A talented banjo and guitar player and pianist, he played in a university jazz band and became a musician in Los Angeles. An agent who spotted Ayres performing in a Hollywood nightclub, and dancing with the actress Lily Damita, in 1928, obtained a small part for him in ...

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Barrymore, John (14 or 15 Feb. 1882–29 May 1942), actor, was born John Sidney Blyth Barrymore in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Maurice Barrymore and Georgiana Drew (Georgie Drew Barrymore), actors. The third of three children, Barrymore would become the most conspicuous member of America’s “Royal Family” of actors. Wild as a youth, he frequently received disciplinary action at the many elementary schools he attended; one such experience led to what he believed would be his life’s calling. “I was punished by remaining the whole day in an empty schoolroom with a big book,” he recalled to his biographer Alma Power-Waters. “It was ...

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Thomas W. Collins Jr.

Bellamy, Ralph (17 June 1904–29 November 1991), actor, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Rexford Bellamy, an advertising executive, and Lilla Louise Smith Bellamy. He later recalled that he developed a “colossal urge” to become an actor while attending New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois. The president of his school's dramatic club, he was expelled during his senior year for smoking a cigarette in the school theater. At the age of eighteen he began his acting career; one of his first professional acting jobs was playing two roles in ...

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Blore, Eric (23 December 1886–01 March 1959), actor, was born in London, England, one of two children of Henry Blore, a schoolmaster, and his wife Mary Newton Blore. Blore was educated at the Mills School in Finchley. After selling insurance a while, he went on the stage in 1908, and by 1913 he had made his London performing debut....

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Brando, Marlon (03 April 1924–01 July 2004), actor, was born Marlon Brando, Jr., in Omaha, Nebraska, to Marlon Brando, Sr., a salesman of agricultural chemicals, and Dorothy Pennebaker, an amateur actress who was active in community theater. As a casting director in Omaha, Dorothy Brando reportedly gave the young ...

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Brown, Johnny Mack (01 September 1904–14 November 1974), college football player and film actor, was born John Mack Brown in Dothan, Alabama, the son of John Henry Brown and Hattie McGillary. Brown’s father owned a small retail shoe store in Dothan that brought the family only a small income. Johnny had to go to work at an early age selling newspapers. He spent much of his youth fishing, hunting, and playing football and other sports with his five brothers. Brown attended Dothan High School, where he earned letters in track, baseball, and football and was an all-state football player. In 1923 Brown earned a scholarship to play football all four years at the University of Alabama....

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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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Mary C. Kalfatovic

Burton, Richard (10 November 1925–05 August 1984), actor, was born Richard Walter Jenkins, Jr., in Pontrhydyfen, South Wales, the son of Richard Walter Jenkins, a coal miner, and Edith Maude Thomas Jenkins. Burton was the twelfth of thirteen children. He was two years old when his mother died, and he was sent to live with his married older sister in the nearby industrial city of Port Talbot. A good student and athlete, Burton attended the Port Talbot Secondary School. At age fifteen he made his first stage appearance in a school play. In 1941 Burton left school for financial reasons to work in a clothing store. While employed at the store, he joined the local squadron of the Air Training Corps, a program designed to prepare teenagers for military service, and his participation in a corps-produced radio documentary gave him the idea to become an actor. In the fall of 1942 Burton returned to the Port Talbot Secondary School, where he came under the tutelage of the English instructor Philip Burton, who strongly encouraged his interest in the theater. Philip Burton became his legal guardian in 1943. Assuming his guardian's last name instead of Jenkins, Burton, aided by Philip Burton's theater world connections, made his professional stage debut in a minor role in ...

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Calhoun, Rory (08 August 1922–28 April 1999), film and television actor, was born Francis Timothy McCown in Los Angeles, California, and was known as Frank. Details of his parentage are unknown. When he was nine months old his father died, and his mother subsequently married a man named Nathaniel Durgin. The family moved north to Santa Cruz, California, during McCown's childhood and he attended school there, sometimes using his stepfather's name as his surname. McCown was an indifferent student and began getting into serious trouble as a teenager. His first criminal offense, the theft of a revolver when he was thirteen, landed him in a state reformatory, but he escaped shortly afterward. Accounts of his behavior over the next seven years vary in detail, but by his own admission he dropped out of high school at sixteen and supported himself as a thief. After robbing a series of jewelry stores, he stole a getaway car and was apprehended across state lines. For these and other offenses, he reportedly served time at federal penitentiaries in Oklahoma and Missouri before being incarcerated at California's San Quentin State Prison. Following his release in the early 1940s, he returned to the Los Angeles area and worked at a series of laboring jobs—as a fisherman, truck driver, mechanic, miner, logger, firefighter, and ranch hand....

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Chaplin, Charlie (16 April 1889–25 December 1977), motion picture actor and director, was born Charles Spencer Chaplin in London, England, the son of Charles Chaplin, Sr., and Hannah Harriet Pedlingham Hill. His parents were singers in the English music halls. His father, after separating from the family in 1890, provided little child support and died an alcoholic in 1901. After her singing career ended, Chaplin’s mother worked as a seamstress. From 1895 on, however, she was frequently hospitalized for physical and emotional difficulties. During this period Chaplin was placed in several different institutions, including the Hanwell School for Orphans and Destitute Children, and intermittently obtained over four years his only formal education....

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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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Conklin, Chester (11 January 1888–11 October 1971), actor, was born Jules Cowles in Oskaloosa, Iowa, the son of farmers. He fulfilled many a country boy’s dream when, probably sometime between 1905 and 1910, he ran off to join the circus and see the world. He was playing with the Al G. Barnes Circus during the 1912–1913 season, and when the company took up its winter quarters on the West Coast he decided to join the newly formed Keystone company begun by ...

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Robert P. Holtzclaw

Coogan, Jackie (24 October 1914–01 March 1984), actor, was born John Leslie Coogan in Los Angeles, California, the son of John Coogan and Lillian Dolliver, vaudeville performers. Coogan began performing at an early age, with a film to his credit and regular appearances in his father’s vaudeville act before the age of three. One performance in Los Angeles was witnessed by film star ...

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Crabbe, Buster (07 February 1908–23 April 1983), athlete and motion picture actor, was born Clarence Linden Crabbe in Oakland, California, the son of Edward Crabbe and Agnes McNamara. When Crabbe was two, the family moved to Hawaii, where his father was overseer of a pineapple plantation. There Crabbe’s natural abilities in many sports brought him the lifelong nickname of “Buster.” He earned sixteen sports letters in high school, set thirty-five national and sixteen world swimming records during his years in sports competition, and was a member of the U.S. swimming team for the Olympics of 1928 (Amsterdam) and 1932 (Los Angeles). He received a B.A. from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in 1932. In the Olympics that same year he crowned his athletic career by winning the gold medal for the 400-meter freestyle event, coming in first by one-tenth of a second. “That one-tenth of a second changed my life,” he said ( ...

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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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Desmond, Johnny (14 November 1920–06 September 1985), singer and actor, was born Giovanni Alfredo de Simone in Detroit, the son of Anthony de Simone, a grocery store owner, and Lillian Buccellato. Johnny sang at age nine on a local radio show, “Uncle Nick’s Children’s Hour.” He later attended the Detroit Conservatory of Music, then formed his own vocal group, the Downbeats. In the summer of 1940 the Downbeats were hired by the ...

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Dickson, Dorothy (25 July 1893–25 September 1995), dancer and musical actress, was born in Kansas City, Missouri, to William Dickson, a journalist, and his wife Clara Barrett Dickson. She was educated in Chicago schools. Her career as a ballroom dancer effectively began there when she partnered Carl Constantine Helson in a charity dance after Helson's father's business speculations went awry....