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Disney, Walt (05 December 1901–15 December 1966), animator and motion picture producer, was born Walter Elias Disney in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Elias Disney, a building contractor, and Flora Call, a teacher. After a childhood near Marceline and in Kansas City, Missouri, Disney studied at the Chicago Institute of Art in the evening while attending McKinley High School during the day. In 1918 he enlisted in the American Ambulance Corps, serving in France and returning to employment as an artist at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio, where he befriended artist ...

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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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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....

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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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Vallee, Rudy (28 July 1901–03 July 1986), musician and actor, was born Hubert Pryor Vallée in Island Pond, Vermont, the son of Charles Alphonse Vallée, a pharmacist-owner of a drugstore, and Kathryn Lynch. The family moved to Westbrook, Maine, when he was a small child. He attended the Valentine Street School and, beginning at age nine, assisted his father at the drugstore. Very early he demonstrated a strong natural inclination to music, and in the sixth grade he taught himself to play the drums. He became deeply engrossed in all things pertaining to the entertainment business, his dream at this point being to perform in the pit of the local Star Theater, where silent movies were preceded and sometimes accompanied by live music....

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Webb, Jack (02 April 1920–23 December 1982), actor, director, and producer, was born Jack Randolph Webb in Santa Monica, California, the son of Samuel Webb and Margaret Smith. His parents separated when he was about two years old. Because his father left home when Webb was so young, he had no memories of him, and he was raised by his mother and grandmother. He grew up in an impoverished section of downtown Los Angeles, where at Belmont High School he became interested in art and dramatics and performed in several school productions. Needing to support himself and his mother, he gave up plans to attend college, and following his graduation from high school he worked in a men’s clothing store. On his own time he appeared on several local radio programs. In 1943 he joined the Army Air Forces, and while stationed in Minnesota he worked on a few United Service Organizations (USO) variety shows. Following his discharge in 1945, an affiliate of ABC Radio hired him to report on the San Francisco Conference (Apr.–June 1945) held to draw up the charter of the newly formed United Nations. While he was in San Francisco, Webb hosted a morning show focusing on jazz and also played the part of a tough detective in the radio drama “Pat Novak for Hire,” a series about waterfront crime. In 1947 he married singer-actress Julie London, with whom he would have two children....