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Abbott, Bud (02 October 1895–24 April 1974), and Lou Costello (06 March 1906–03 March 1959), a team of comedians on stage, radio, film, and television, were born, respectively, in Asbury Park and Paterson, New Jersey. Abbott (born William Alexander Abbott) was the son of Harry Abbott, a circus advance agent, and Rae Fisher, a circus bareback rider. Costello (born Louis Francis Cristillo) was the son of Sebastian Cristillo, an Italian-born silk weaver and insurance sales agent, and Helen Rege....

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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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Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. [left to right] Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Mabel Normand, c. 1915, in one of their Keystone films. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-10081).

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Backus, Jim (25 February 1913–03 July 1989), actor, comedian, and author, was born James Gilmore Backus in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Russell Gould Backus, a mechanical engineer and president of a local heavy-machinery company, and Daisy Gilmore-Taylor. They lived in Bratenahl, an upper-class borough of Cleveland. Jim attended the Bratenahl School, then as a teenager went to Kentucky Military Institute, but when he tried to enlist, the army rejected him, telling him that he had a vertical stomach and would have to eat six times a day to stay nourished. However, at school he began a lifelong friendship with fellow cadet and future movie actor ...

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Melissa Vickery-Bareford

Belushi, John (24 January 1949–05 May 1982), actor-comedian, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Adam Belushi, the owner of a local restaurant, and Agnes (maiden name unknown). John was the eldest of three sons. His younger brother Jim also became an actor. An aggressive and difficult child, Belushi often got into trouble as a youngster. At Central High School in Wheaton, Illinois, however, he satisfied an intense need for attention by participating in such extracurricular activities as football, wrestling, choir, forensics, and the drama club and by playing drums in a rock ’n’ roll band. In his senior year he was captain of the football team as well as homecoming king....

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Bolger, Ray (10 January 1904–15 January 1987), comedy-actor and dancer, was born Raymond Wallace Bolger in Dorchester, near Boston, Massachusetts, the son of James Edward Bolger, a painter, and Anne Wallace. After he graduated from Dorchester High School in 1920, Bolger initially was employed in office work, including positions with First National Bank of Boston, New England Mutual Life Insurance Company, and Kelly Peanut Company. His involvement with performing had been at the amateur level, and he found his way into a ballet school run by Senia Rusakoff (Roussakoff) because the institution required someone with bookkeeping knowledge and offered him free dancing lessons in return. Training in ballet and tap led to Bolger’s first stage appearance in 1922 as a soloist in Rusakoff’s dance recital, followed by a couple of years touring with the Bob Ott Musical Comedy Repertoire Company. This experience enabled Bolger to develop his craft in various musicals. He acquired skills in comedy and acting while continuing to broaden his range of dancing....

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Brown, Joe E. (28 July 1892–06 July 1973), comic actor, was born Joseph Evans Brown in Holgate, Ohio, the son of Mathias Brown, a house painter, and Anna Evans. Lacking formal education beyond the early grades, Brown embarked on a show business career at age nine when his extraordinary athletic talents caught the eye of a neighbor, Billy Ashe. Ashe brought the boy into his family’s circus act, the Five Marvelous Ashtons. Touring cities and towns of the Midwest in such traveling shows as the John Robinson Circus and the Floto Circus, Brown grew into his teens developing skills as an acrobat, trapeze artist, and clown. His affinity and aptitude for sports allowed him to supplement his income by playing semiprofessional baseball. In 1915 he married Katherine Frances McGraw. The couple raised four children....

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George Burns. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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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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Cambridge, Godfrey (26 February 1933–29 November 1976), actor and comedian, was born in New York City, the son of Alexander Cambridge, a bookkeeper, and Sarah (maiden name unknown), a stenographer. His parents emigrated from British Guiana in the West Indies to Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada, later settling in Harlem. Although his parents were trained professionals, neither could secure work in their fields. Consequently his father became a day laborer, digging ditches, unloading coal cars, and unpacking trucks; his mother worked in the garment district....

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Clark, Bobby (16 June 1888–12 February 1960), clown, was born Robert Edwin Clark in a church rectory (his grandfather was the church sexton) in Springfield, Ohio, the son of Victor Brown Clark, a railroad conductor, and Alice Marilla Sneed. His father died when Bobby was six. As a young boy Clark sang in the church choir and played the bugle. His fascination with outlandish costumes, which became one of his theatrical trademarks, was apparent at an early age. When he was in the fourth grade Bobby met Paul McCullough, four years his senior, and a close friendship was formed that lasted over thirty-five years. The two boys soon put together a bugling and tumbling act that they performed at the local YMCA. Clark and McCullough’s act was received so favorably by the residents of the area that, at the ages of seventeen and twenty-one, respectively, they decided to embark upon a career in show business. They began to place advertisements in various theatrical publications. The response was favorable and Clark and McCullough, as they now called themselves, were hired by a minstrel troupe as tumblers, buglers, and handymen, with a combined weekly salary of twenty-five dollars. They were on their way....

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See Abbott, Bud

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Dangerfield, Rodney (22 November 1921–05 October 2004), comedian and actor, was born Jacob Cohen in Babylon, Long Island, New York, the son of Phillip Cohen, a vaudeville comedian, and Dorothy Nitelbaum. Dangerfield's father abandoned his family soon after Dangerfield was born. Struggling against poverty, Dangerfield's mother moved her two children among several low-rent areas in Long Island and the Bronx. In his 2004 autobiography, ...

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Errol, Leon (03 July 1881–12 October 1951), stage, vaudeville, and screen comedian, was born in Sydney, Australia, the son of Joseph Sims-Errol and Elizabeth Adams. He was educated at St. Joseph’s College and Sydney University, where he took premedical courses in preparation for becoming a physician. An early propensity for comedy, however, stimulated Errol to write, direct, and appear in comedy revues produced by college groups. His parents, upon seeing him in a college operetta, capitulated to his desire to pursue acting as a profession. Errol dropped out of school to make his professional debut in 1896 at the Standard Theatre in Sydney, playing vaudeville. For the next decade he toured Australia, playing everything from Romeo to Macduff to low comedy. As he later said, “whatever success I’ve had in comedy I owe to my training in tragedy. In fact, you can’t play low comedy at all without an understanding of tragedy.”...

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W. C. Fields. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111428).

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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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See Three Stooges

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Jackie Gleason Right, with the Irish playwright Brendan Behan, 1960. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-108031).

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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