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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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Ameche, Don (31 May 1908–06 December 1993), actor, was born Dominic Felix Ameche in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the son of Felix Ameche, a saloon operator, and Barbara Hertle. Ameche’s father, a native of Italy, had changed the spelling of his name from “Amici” to “Ameche” when he immigrated to the United States. Ameche, one of eight children—his brother Jim Ameche became a popular radio personality—studied at Columbia Academy, a Roman Catholic preparatory school in Dubuque, Iowa, for four years beginning at age fourteen. He then entered Columbia College (also in Dubuque) but left in 1928 in order to study law, taking courses at Marquette University in Milwaukee, then at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and finally at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He never received a degree. Ameche had performed in plays in high school, and while he was at the University of Wisconsin he performed in a Madison stock company. This interest led him, in 1929, to again change course and pursue a professional acting career. That same year he landed his first Broadway role, as the butler in ...

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Anderson, Eddie “Rochester” (18 September 1905–28 February 1977), radio and movie actor, was born Edward Lincoln Anderson in Oakland, California. Anderson was from a show business family; his father, “Big Ed” Anderson, was a vaudevillian, and his mother, Ella Mae (maiden name unknown), was a circus tightrope walker. As a youngster Eddie sold newspapers on the streets of Oakland, which, according to his own account, injured his voice and gave it the rasping quality that was long his trademark on radio....

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Arnaz, Desi (02 March 1917–02 December 1986), bandleader, actor, and television producer, was born Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y Acha III in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, the son of Desiderio Arnaz II, a landowner and politician, and heiress Dolores “Lolita” de Acha. His early youth was privileged, but the revolution of 1932 broke up his secure home. His father was jailed briefly, and the family ended up in Miami with very little money....

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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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Boone, Richard (18 June 1917–10 January 1981), motion picture, stage, and television actor, was born Richard Allen Boone in Los Angeles, California, the son of Kirk Boone, a corporation lawyer, and Cecile Beckerman. Boone graduated from the San Diego Army and Navy Academy in 1932 and enrolled at Stanford University two years later. He worked on fishing boats during the summers. At Stanford he studied art and became a member of the boxing team, winning amateur light heavyweight championships in 1936 and 1937. He was expelled from Stanford after becoming involved in a prank that resulted in an injury to the wife of former U.S. president ...

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Samuel Willard Crompton

Burr, Raymond (21 May 1917–12 September 1993), actor, was born Raymond William Stacy Burr in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada, the son of William Johnston Burr, a Canadian hardware dealer, and Minerva Smith, an American pianist and music teacher. Burr’s early years were spent in an unusual mixture of privilege and privation. Traveling at a young age with his parents and later with his maternal grandfather, he was exposed to other cultures and languages, notably Chinese. At the same time, Burr suffered emotionally from the separation of his parents when he was five or six years old. His mother brought Burr and his two younger siblings to Vallejo, California, while his father remained in British Columbia....

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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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See Abbott, Bud

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Robert A. Armour

Crane, Bob (13 July 1928–29 June 1978), actor, was born Bob Edward Crane in Waterbury, Connecticut, the son of Alfred T. Crane and Rosemary Senich. Following graduation from high school, Crane studied music in Waterbury with plans to become a professional drummer. He played with the Connecticut Symphony from 1944 until 1946, when he left to perform with several dance bands touring the East Coast. Following a stint with the Connecticut national guard from 1948 until 1950, he became a radio disc jockey with a reputation for humor and a glib manner. Between 1950 and 1956 he worked for radio stations in New York and Connecticut before moving to station KNX in Hollywood, California, where he remained until 1965. His humor and clowning made the show a quick success....

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Crosby, Bing (03 May 1903–14 October 1977), singer of popular music, was born Harry Lillis Crosby in Tacoma, Washington, the son of Harry Lowe Crosby, a plant accountant, and Catherine Harrigan. His father was an easy-going descendant of Edmund Brewster, one of the Puritan signers of the Mayflower Compact. His mother, an Irish Catholic, was a strict disciplinarian. Early in his life the family moved to Spokane, Washington, where Crosby grew up. At age six he entered Webster Elementary School (1909–1917), where he received the nickname “Bing.” In 1921 he graduated from the rigidly Jesuit-run Gongaza High School and entered Gongaza University (1921–1925), where he prepared for a law career....

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Eddy, Nelson (29 June 1901–06 March 1967), film actor and concert baritone, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of William Darius Eddy, an electrical engineer and inventor, and Isabel Kendrick. Eddy was from a musical family: both of his parents were noted local singers; his grandmother, Caroline Ackerman Kendrick, had been a famous oratorio singer; and his grandfather, Isaac N. Eddy, had been the bass drummer with Reeves’s American Band. In 1915 his parents separated, and his mother moved to Philadelphia. Nelson left school to take a job with her brother at the Mott Iron Works there, and he never returned to finish his formal education. His father stayed in Providence and later remarried. Virginia, a half-sister, was born in 1925. Later, her two sons became favorites of Eddy’s, who had no children of his own....

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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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Ford, Paul (02 November 1901–02 April 1976), actor, was born Paul Ford Weaver in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Louis Weaver, a businessman, and Effie Ford. Ford graduated from public high school in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1918. In 1920–1921 he attended Dartmouth College, where he first appeared onstage with the Dartmouth Players as Sir Lucius O’Trigger in ...

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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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Jaffe, Sam (08 March 1891–24 March 1984), stage, screen, and television character actor, was born Shalom Jaffe in New York City, the son of Bernard Barch Jaffe, a jeweler, and Ada Steinberg, a stage actress. As a young man Jaffe emphasized scholarly pursuits and never planned to become an actor. He received a B.S. in engineering from the City College of New York in 1912 and then began a master’s degree program at the Columbia School of Engineering. He also studied philosophy, painting, and language, was an accomplished pianist and composer, and served as dean of mathematics at the Bronx Cultural Institute, a college preparatory school. But his mother, a popular actress in the thriving Yiddish theater, apparently swayed him to turn his back on academia and begin a stage career....

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