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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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Adams, Grizzly (22 October 1812–25 October 1860), mountain man and wild animal tamer, was born John Adams in Medway, Massachusetts, the son of Eleazar Adams and Sybil Capen. Adams apparently served an apprenticeship as a cobbler, but when he was twenty-one he began hunting and trapping animals, for showmen, in the woods of Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. He delighted in his work, which was cut short when he tried to control an unruly Bengal tiger. In doing this favor for an exhibitor, Adams was badly mangled. When he recovered his health, he went back to making boots and shoes....

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Agee, James Rufus (27 November 1909–16 May 1955), writer, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of Hugh James Agee, a construction company employee, and Laura Whitman Tyler. The father’s family were poorly educated mountain farmers, while the mother’s were solidly middle class. Agee was profoundly affected by his father’s death in a car accident in 1916. He idealized his absent father and struggled against his mother and her genteel and (he felt) cold values. “Agee’s mother wanted him to be clean, chaste, and sober,” the photographer ...

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Ailey, Alvin (05 January 1931–01 December 1989), actor, dancer, and choreographer, was born in Rogers, Texas, the son of Alvin Ailey, a laborer, and Lula Elizabeth Cliff, a cotton picker and domestic. Before Ailey was a year old, his father abandoned the family, leaving them homeless for close to six years. During that time Ailey and his mother made their way, often by foot, across the unforgiving terrain of the impoverished and bitterly racist Brazos Valley in southeastern Texas to seek shelter with relatives and find work in nearby fields....

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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, Mel (14 February 1913–16 June 1996), sportscaster, was born Melvin Allen Israel in Birmingham, Alabama, the eldest child of Julius Israel and Anna Leib Israel. His parents were Russian immigrants who made their home in the small town of Johns, outside Birmingham. Julius Israel ran a general store in Johns and later sold women's apparel to support his family, which included Melvin's younger brother and sister. The elder Israel moved his family to various small towns in Alabama and to Greensboro, North Carolina, while he pursued his selling career; by Melvin's early teens the family had settled in Birmingham....

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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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Amory, Cleveland (02 September 1917–14 October 1998), writer and animal rights advocate, was born in Nahant, Massachusetts, the son of Robert Amory, a textile manufacturer, and his wife, Leonore Cobb Amory. Both parents were descendants of long-established upper-class families in Boston, where Cleveland grew up in a privileged household. He was educated at private schools, including Milton Academy, and enrolled at Harvard in 1935. After graduating four years later, he worked briefly as a reporter for the ...

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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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Arledge, Roone (08 July 1931–05 December 2002), television broadcasting executive, was born Roone Pinckney Arledge, Jr., in the Forest Hills section of Queens in New York City, the son of Roone Arledge, an attorney, and Gertrude Stritmater Arledge. He grew up in Merrick, a Long Island suburb, and excelled at Mepham High School both in his studies and in athletics as a member of the varsity wrestling and baseball teams. Graduating in 1948, Arledge enrolled at Columbia University hoping to become a professional writer; he had varied interests in journalism, drama, and academic philosophy and was a writer for the Columbia student newspaper, the Spectator. He graduated in 1952. Still uncertain of his career, he enrolled in graduate courses at Columbia's School of International Affairs with thoughts of becoming a foreign correspondent. Needing to support himself, he took an entry‐level television production job at the (now defunct) DuMont Television Network....

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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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Balaban, Barney (08 June 1887–07 March 1971), motion picture executive, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Israel Balaban, a grocer, and Goldie Manderbursky. At age twelve Balaban began working as a messenger for Western Union, then worked at various jobs until the mid-1910s when he settled as a bookkeeper at the Western Cold Storage Company. With his father, brothers, and a friend (soon thereafter brother-in-law), Sam Katz, Balaban launched the Balaban & Katz movie theater company in 1912. During the next decade Balaban & Katz redefined movie exhibition; the company’s Chicago-based movie palaces became the talk of the film business and enabled Balaban to quit his day job. Thereafter, whenever he worked, Balaban managed the corporation’s books and created many of the principles of modern movie accounting and record keeping....

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Balanchine, George (22 January 1904–30 April 1983), ballet choreographer, was born Georgii Melitonovich Balanchivadze in Saint Petersburg, Russia, the son of Meliton Balanchivadze, a composer, and Maria Nikolaevna Vasil’eva. Balanchine was of Georgian extraction on his father’s side; for this reason, he later insisted that his character owed more to Mediterranean culture than to Slav. He began piano lessons at the age of five, studying first with his mother, and was accepted into the ballet section of the Imperial Theater School, Saint Petersburg, in 1913. His financially straitened parents were motivated principally by the chance to secure him a free education. In addition to full board, the school offered a complete academic program as well as the finest dance instruction in the country; graduation guaranteed an income for life, first as a dancer, then as a teacher or coach, all subsidized by the tsar. As was customary for students, during his second year Balanchine performed with the Imperial Ballet troupe on the stage of the famed Maryinsky Theater; this crystallized his desire to dance. The ballet that so inspired him was ...

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Barber, Red (17 February 1908–22 October 1992), sports broadcaster, was born Walter Lanier Barber in Columbus, Mississippi, the son of William Lanier Barber, a storytelling locomotive engineer, and Selena Martin, a teacher and grammarian whose family ran the local newspaper. When Red was ten years old, the Barbers moved to Sanford, Florida, after a boll weevil invasion destroyed the Mississippi cotton crop and hence the state’s economy. In Sanford, a truck-farming area north of Orlando, Barber played football and baseball, ran track, and graduated in 1926 at the top of his high school class. The namesake and distant relative of the poet ...

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Barbera, Joseph (24 March 1911–18 December 2006), film animator and producer, was born in the neighborhood called Little Italy on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City, the son of Sicilian immigrants Vincente Barbera, a barber, and Francesca Calvacca. His family (which pronounced the name ...

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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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Benchley, Robert (15 September 1889–21 November 1945), humorist, drama critic, and actor, was born Robert Charles Benchley in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of Charles H. Benchley, the mayor’s clerk, and Maria Jane Moran. After the death of his older brother Edmund in the Spanish-American War, an event that stunned Benchley’s family, Edmund’s fiancée, Lillian Duryea, largely financed Robert’s education. Benchley attended Phillips Exeter Academy, where his bent for satire early revealed itself when his assigned essay on “a practical subject,” embalming, earned an ...