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Backus, Charles (20 October 1831–21 June 1883), actor and minstrel troupe founder, was born in Rochester, New York, the son of a prominent physician. His parents’ names are unknown. Backus’s grandfather Azel Backus was the first president of Hamilton College and a deeply religious man. Despite the Backus family plans of a literary or professional career for Charley, the young boy’s affinity for comedic imitation was apparent from his earliest school days. After completing his public school education, Backus made his acting debut in 1851 in the role of Jerry Clip in ...

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Bryant, Dan (09 May 1833–10 April 1875), actor and musician, was born Daniel Webster O’Brien in Troy, New York, the son of Timothy O’Brien, a wood craftsman, and Margaret Duggan, a fiddlemaker. The youngest of three brothers, all blackface minstrels, Bryant made his debut in 1845 carried onstage in a sack at his eldest brother Jerry’s benefit at the Vauxhall Gardens in New York City. He appeared as a jig dancer in 1848 at the Pantheon Theatre in New York and at Thalian Hall a year later in the same city. In the early 1850s he performed with several minstrel troupes, including Charley White’s, Woods and Fellows, and Morris and Campbell’s. By 1856 he was comanaging the company known as Bryant and Mallory’s Campbell’s Minstrels....

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Hart, Tony (25 July 1855–04 November 1891), actor and singer, was born Anthony Cannon in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of Anthony Cannon and Mary Sweeney, both of whom had emigrated from Ireland. He put on amateur performances as a child, but a pattern of delinquency began with disruptions at school and culminated in the near murder of a rival during a performance; his parents placed him in the Lyman School (a state reformatory at Westborough, outside Worcester) in 1865. He escaped several months later and traveled to Boston, where he supported himself as a singer, a bootblack, and a newsboy, and then to Providence, where he sang and danced in saloons and was dubbed Master Antonio by a saloon keeper. He joined a touring circus, and then Billy Arlington’s Minstrels; in 1870, at age fifteen, he joined Madame Rentz’s Female Minstrels. Dressed as a little girl, he evoked tears with a sentimental song, “Put Me in My Little Bed.”...