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Ball, Lucille (08 August 1911–26 April 1989), actress and television executive, was born Lucille Désirée Ball in Jamestown, New York, the daughter of Henry Dunnell Ball, a telephone lineman, and Désirée “DeDe” Evelyn Hunt. Stagestruck from an early age, Ball quit school at fifteen to attend New York City’s John Murray Anderson/Robert Milton School of the Theater and Dance. Later accounts describe her New York years, from about 1926 to 1933, as a time of struggle that required the aspiring actress to be tough. Jobs in the chorus line of Broadway shows never seemed to pan out for Ball, who eked out a living first waitressing and then modeling. She eventually got her show-business break in 1933, when she was sent to Hollywood as a chorus girl in ...

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Bankhead, Tallulah (31 January 1902–12 December 1968), actress, was born into an illustrious political family in Huntsville, Alabama, the daughter of William Bankhead, a U.S. representative and, from 1936 to 1940, Speaker of the House, and Adelaide Eugenia Sledge. Shortly after Bankhead’s birth her mother died, and Tallulah was sent to Jasper, Alabama, to be raised by grandparents and occasionally by her father. Though the family was Episcopalian, Bankhead and her elder sister, Eugenia, were educated at Catholic girls’ schools in Virginia, New York, Washington, D.C., and Alabama. At an early age Bankhead displayed the flamboyant personality for which she became famous....

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Daniels, Bebe (14 January 1901–16 March 1971), entertainer, was born Phyllis Bebe Daniels in Dallas, Texas, the daughter of Danny Daniels (Melville Daniel MacMeal), the actor-manager of a traveling stock theater company, and Phyllis Griffin, his leading lady. From birth Daniels was called “Bebe,” which means baby in Spanish, reflecting her mother’s Spanish ancestry. Daniels first appeared onstage when she was only ten weeks old, and she performed in her first Shakespearean production at the age of four. After her father left the family around 1907–1908, Daniels’s mother took her to Los Angeles, California. She played child roles onstage until a new labor law was passed. In 1910 she made her silent film debut in ...

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Disney, Walt (05 December 1901–15 December 1966), animator and motion picture producer, was born Walter Elias Disney in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Elias Disney, a building contractor, and Flora Call, a teacher. After a childhood near Marceline and in Kansas City, Missouri, Disney studied at the Chicago Institute of Art in the evening while attending McKinley High School during the day. In 1918 he enlisted in the American Ambulance Corps, serving in France and returning to employment as an artist at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio, where he befriended artist ...

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Faye, Alice (05 May 1915–09 May 1998), singing actress, was born Alice Jeanne Leppert in New York to Charley Leppert, a policeman, and his wife Alice Moffat Leppert. Educated in New York schools and lying about her age, she began her professional career in 1928 as a dancer for the Chester Hale Troupe and the night-club entrepreneur Nils Thor Granlund. Faye (who legally changed her name in 1935) was a chorine in the eleventh ...

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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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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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Hopper, Hedda (02 May 1885–01 February 1966), actress and gossip columnist, was born Elda Furry in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, the daughter of David E. Furry, a butcher, and Margaret Miller. The fifth of nine children, Hopper attended school until the eighth grade, after which she stayed home to help her mother with the household. She had an early driving desire to be on the stage, spurred by seeing ...

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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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Charles W. Carey Jr.

Kaye, Danny (18 January 1913–03 March 1987), entertainer, was born David Daniel Kaminski in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Jacob Kaminski, a tailor, and Clara Nemerovsky. He dropped out of high school during his sophomore year and hitchhiked with a friend to Miami Beach, Florida, to become professional song-and-dance men. After returning to Brooklyn two weeks later, he worked as a soda jerk, office clerk, and insurance appraiser by day and performed at private parties by night. In 1929 he went to work at White Roe Lake House in New York’s Catskill Mountains as a tummler, an entertainer who amused the guests during their every waking hour. For the next four summers he performed at White Roe as Danny Kaye and unsuccessfully sought work on Broadway during the winter....

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Kovacs, Ernie (23 January 1919–13 January 1962), television comedian and actor, was born Ernest Edward Kovacs in Trenton, New Jersey, the son of Andrew John Kovacs (András János Kovács), a policeman, and Mary Chebonick (Maria Csebenyák). His parents’ Hungarian heritage was an essential part of Kovacs’s upbringing; he grew up bilingual in an ethnic working-class neighborhood near the Trenton riverfront. The family’s financial situation improved when Kovacs’s father left the police department to become a bootlegger. Kovacs’s parents were ostentatious spenders who doted on him. They dressed him in velvet and allowed him to have a pony, an unlikely pet for an urban family. When Prohibition ended, the family opened a restaurant, where Kovacs would treat his playmates to desserts....

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Edward L. Lach, Jr. and Barbara Bennett Peterson

Meadows, Audrey (08 February 1926–03 February 1996), television personality, actress, and singer, was born Audrey Cotter in Wuchang, China, the daughter of the Reverend Francis James Meadows Cotter, an Episcopal minister, and Ida Taylor Cotter. Her parents had gone to China as Christian missionaries, and until she was five she lived in Wuchang and spoke both Chinese and English. The family returned to the United States in 1931 and first resided in Providence, Rhode Island, where her father had accepted a pastorate at St. John's Protestant Episcopal Cathedral. Following successive pastoral moves to Sewickley, Pennsylvania, and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the family settled in 1935 in Sharon, Connecticut, where Rev. Cotter was rector of Christ Church until the late 1950s....

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Montgomery, Elizabeth (15 April 1933–18 May 1995), actress, was born in Los Angeles, California, the daughter of Robert Montgomery, a handsome actor, and Elizabeth Allen Bryan Montgomery, a beautiful actress. Elizabeth Montgomery graduated from the Spence School for actors and actresses, in New York City, and then studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, also in New York. Following three years of strenuous training, she made her debut in 1951 in “Top Secret,” a segment of “Robert Montgomery Presents,” her father's popular television show. By the 1950s, Robert Montgomery was widely known not only as a versatile actor, director, and producer but also as the first president of the Screen Actors Guild (1935–1939) and as a decorated naval combat veteran. He even helped direct ...

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Vallee, Rudy (28 July 1901–03 July 1986), musician and actor, was born Hubert Pryor Vallée in Island Pond, Vermont, the son of Charles Alphonse Vallée, a pharmacist-owner of a drugstore, and Kathryn Lynch. The family moved to Westbrook, Maine, when he was a small child. He attended the Valentine Street School and, beginning at age nine, assisted his father at the drugstore. Very early he demonstrated a strong natural inclination to music, and in the sixth grade he taught himself to play the drums. He became deeply engrossed in all things pertaining to the entertainment business, his dream at this point being to perform in the pit of the local Star Theater, where silent movies were preceded and sometimes accompanied by live music....

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Webb, Jack (02 April 1920–23 December 1982), actor, director, and producer, was born Jack Randolph Webb in Santa Monica, California, the son of Samuel Webb and Margaret Smith. His parents separated when he was about two years old. Because his father left home when Webb was so young, he had no memories of him, and he was raised by his mother and grandmother. He grew up in an impoverished section of downtown Los Angeles, where at Belmont High School he became interested in art and dramatics and performed in several school productions. Needing to support himself and his mother, he gave up plans to attend college, and following his graduation from high school he worked in a men’s clothing store. On his own time he appeared on several local radio programs. In 1943 he joined the Army Air Forces, and while stationed in Minnesota he worked on a few United Service Organizations (USO) variety shows. Following his discharge in 1945, an affiliate of ABC Radio hired him to report on the San Francisco Conference (Apr.–June 1945) held to draw up the charter of the newly formed United Nations. While he was in San Francisco, Webb hosted a morning show focusing on jazz and also played the part of a tough detective in the radio drama “Pat Novak for Hire,” a series about waterfront crime. In 1947 he married singer-actress Julie London, with whom he would have two children....