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Barton, James Edward (01 November 1890–19 February 1962), vaudeville performer and actor, was born in Gloucester, New Jersey, the son of James Charles Barton, an interlocutor with the West and Primrose Minstrels, and Clara Anderson, a vaudeville performer. At age two Barton was carried on stage by his parents in a production of ...

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Cantor, Eddie ( September 1892?–10 October 1964), entertainer, was born Israel Iskowitz in New York City, the son of Mechel Iskowitz, a violinist, and Meta Kantrowitz. Orphaned at the age of three, he was raised by Esther Kantrowitz, his maternal grandmother. He was educated in the public schools of New York’s Lower East Side. His grandmother registered him as “Israel Kantrowitz,” but the name was subsequently anglicized to “Isidore Kanter” by a school official. Kanter, who altered the spelling of his name to “Cantor” upon embarking on a show business career in 1911, grew up on the streets. His grandmother, an Orthodox Jew, earned a living selling candles and other household items and by securing employment for young immigrants as maids in East Side homes....

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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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George M. Cohan Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1933. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LOT 12735, no. 236 P&P).

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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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Sammy Davis, Jr. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1956. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-114446).

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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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Eltinge, Julian (14 May 1883–07 March 1941), female impersonator, was born William Julian Dalton in Newtonville, Massachusetts, the son of Joseph Dalton, a mining engineer, and Julia Edna Baker. His father’s profession took him to the West, where Julian went to schools in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Butte, Montana, as well as in Boston on his family’s return there. He was working as a clerk in a dry goods store at $3.50 a week when he auditioned for the First Corps Cadets of Boston, an all-male amateur theatrical troupe noted for the plausibility of its female impersonations. He played the small role of Mignonette in Robert A. Barnet’s burlesque ...

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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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Charles W. Carey Jr.

Jessel, George (03 April 1898–24 May 1981), entertainer, was born George Albert Jessel in New York City, the son of Joseph Aaron Jessel, a playwright and traveling salesman, and Charlotte Schwartz. He began his singing career when he was nine years old by serenading customers in his maternal grandfather’s tailor shop. Later that year, using the stage name “McKinley,” he began singing baritone with the Imperial Trio at a Harlem theater where his mother worked as a ticket-taker and soon was appearing solo as Little Georgie Jessel. After his father died in 1908, he cut short his formal education after only six months to join Gus Edwards’s School Boys and Girls, a traveling vaudeville troupe. He toured with a number of Edwards’s shows until 1914, when his voice changed and he lost his boyish appeal, whereupon he went to England to perform as a singer and comedian for the next three years....

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Al Jolson Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111598).

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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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Langdon, Harry Philmore (15 June 1884–22 December 1944), vaudeville and motion picture comedian, was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the son of William Wiley Langdon and Levina Lookenbill, both of whom worked for the Salvation Army, an occupation that left the family in a state of poverty almost on the level of the indigents they helped. As a child Harry Langdon had little formal education, spending most of his time taking odd jobs, selling papers, and running errands. In his teens he entered the world of show business, participating in many amateur nights on the local vaudeville stage of the Doheney Theater in his hometown. At the age of twelve Langdon displayed some of the pantomime skills that would develop as the quintessence of his humorous character, and he attempted to be a magician and a ventriloquist. However, he was most adept as a comedian. Mental and physical ineptitude provided the core of a routine that won favor with audiences as early as 1896, thirty years before Langdon became a leading actor for the studios of the producer ...