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Bailey, Pearl (29 March 1918–17 August 1990), actress, singer, and entertainer, was born Pearl Mae Bailey in Newport News, Virginia, the daughter of the Reverend Joseph James Bailey and Ella Mae (maiden name unknown). Her brother Bill Bailey was at one time a well-known tap dancer....

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Baker, Josephine (03 June 1906–12 April 1975), dancer, singer, and civil rights activist, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Eddie Carson, a musician, and Carrie Macdonald. Her parents parted when Josephine was still an infant, and her mother married Arthur Martin, which has led to some confusion about her maiden name. Very little is known about her childhood, except that she was a witness to the East St. Louis riot in 1917. This event was often a feature of her talks in the 1950s and 1960s about racism and the fight for equality, which fostered the oft-repeated assertion that the family was resident in East St. Louis. Before the age of eighteen Josephine had been married twice, first to Willie Wells and then to William Baker, to whom she was married in Camden, New Jersey, in September 1921....

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Bayes, Nora (29 November 1880–19 March 1928), singer and comedienne, was born Theodora Goldberg in Joliet, Illinois, the daughter of Elias Goldberg, a merchant, and Rachel Miller. The product of local public schools, which she left to enter vaudeville, the young Dora Goldberg was largely self-taught musically. She had already made her debut at the Hopkins Theatre in Chicago and had become “Nora Bayes” when, at eighteen, she received her first acclaim at the Hyde and Behman vaudeville theater in Chicago, singing comic songs in dialect while impersonating Yiddish and Irish stereotypical characters then fashionable in vaudeville....

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Brice, Fanny (29 October 1891–29 May 1951), comedienne and singer, was born Fania Borach in New York City, the daughter of Charles Borach, a bartender, and Rose Stern. The third of four children, all born on New York’s Lower East Side, she was raised in a Newark, New Jersey, middle-class home complete with household servants and material comforts. Her parents separated in 1902, and Rose moved the family to St. Marks Place in Brooklyn, New York, where Fanny got the remnants of her formal education at public schools....

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Clooney, Rosemary (23 May 1928–29 June 2002), popular singer and actress, was born in Maysville, Kentucky, the daughter of Andrew Clooney, an occasional house painter, and Frances Guilfoyle Clooney, district sales manager for a chain of dress shops. Both parents were of Irish Catholic descent. Rosemary and her two younger siblings, Betty and Nick, grew up in a household that was unstable and often failed to provide basic necessities. Andrew Clooney, an alcoholic, was often unemployed; Frances Clooney, the more consistent breadwinner, traveled frequently for her job, leaving the children with their father or with relatives. In 1941, following her divorce from Andrew Clooney, Frances Clooney remarried and moved to California, taking her son with her; Rosemary and Betty were left behind to keep house for their father and to get by as best they could. Though Andrew Clooney found steady work at a defense plant, money was tight; the girls paid for school lunches with refunds from soda bottles they collected....

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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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Cole, Nat King (17 March 1919–15 February 1965), pianist and singer, was born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama, the son of the Reverend Edward James Coles, Sr., and Perlina Adams, a musician. Cole’s family moved to Chicago when he was four. He first studied piano with his mother, then with bassist Milt Hinton’s mother, and at the age of twelve, classical piano with a Professor Thomas. The family home was located near the Grand Terrace Ballroom, where Cole often heard his first and most important influence, pianist ...

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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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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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Desmond, Johnny (14 November 1920–06 September 1985), singer and actor, was born Giovanni Alfredo de Simone in Detroit, the son of Anthony de Simone, a grocery store owner, and Lillian Buccellato. Johnny sang at age nine on a local radio show, “Uncle Nick’s Children’s Hour.” He later attended the Detroit Conservatory of Music, then formed his own vocal group, the Downbeats. In the summer of 1940 the Downbeats were hired by the ...

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Dietrich, Marlene (27 December 1901–06 May 1992), actress and singer, was born Maria Magdalena Dietrich in Berlin, Germany, the daughter of Louis Erich Otto Dietrich, a policeman, and Wilhelmina Elisabeth Josephine Felsing. Dietrich trained as a concert violinist at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, but a hand injury at the age of twenty-one led her to shift her ambitions to acting. She adopted the surname Marlene for her stage name by combining syllables of her first two names....

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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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Hall, Wendall (23 August 1896–02 April 1969), singer, composer, music publisher, and advertising executive, was born Wendall Woods Hall in St. George, Kansas, the son of Rev. George Franklin Hall and Laura Woods Hall. (His mother's lineage can be traced back to Mayflower...

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Holman, Libby (23 May 1906–18 June 1971), actress and singer, was born Elizabeth Holtzman in Cincinnati, Ohio, the daughter of well-to-do lawyer Alfred Holtzman and Rachel Workum. After receiving a B.A. from the University of Cincinnati, Holman made her stage debut in a touring production of the drama ...

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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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Lenya, Lotte (18 October 1898–27 November 1981), singing actress, was born Karoline Wilhelmine Charlotte Blamauer, in Vienna, Austria, the daughter of Franz Blamauer, a carriage driver, and Johanna Teuschl, a laundress. “Linnerl,” as she was nicknamed, spent her childhood in a Roman Catholic but impoverished and abusive family in the working-class district of Penzing. At fourteen she left the Bürgerschule for gifted children in Hietzing to begin a four-year apprenticeship in a small hat factory. In 1913, however, an aunt took her to Zurich, where she worked as a domestic helper while studying dance part-time and playing small roles in productions at the Stadttheater....

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Lillie, Beatrice (29 May 1894–20 January 1989), comic actress, was born Beatrice Gladys Lillie in Toronto, Canada, the younger of two daughters of John Lillie, a schoolmaster, and Lucy Ann Shaw Lillie. Educated in Toronto and at St Agnes College in Belleville, Ontario, Canada, Lillie was sometimes known as Gladys Monteil when appearing with her mother and sister Muriel onstage in Canada....

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Monroe, Marilyn (01 June 1926–05 August 1962), film actress and sex symbol, was born Norma Jeane Mortensen (and was also known as Norma Jeane Baker in her youth) in Los Angeles, California, the daughter of Gladys Monroe Baker Mortensen, a film cutter, who was unmarried when she gave birth to Monroe (her father has never been positively identified). Gladys Mortensen was an avid movie fan, but Monroe spent very little time with her often unstable mother. Within two weeks of her birth, Monroe was placed in the first of what would be a succession of foster homes, guardianships, and orphanages. This experience convinced her that she was a “mistake,” a person easily abandoned. Given an insecure childhood that included the trauma of sexual molestation and an early marriage (to James Dougherty in 1942; they were divorced in 1946) arranged in part to prevent her return to an orphanage, it is a testament to Monroe’s tenacity, personal strength, and resilience that she managed to achieve the heights in her career that she did....

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Monroe, Vaughn Wilton (07 October 1911–21 May 1973), bandleader, singer, and businessman, was born in Akron, Ohio, the son of Ira C. Monroe, a supervisor in a rubber tire factory, and Mable Louisa Maahs. Following World War I, the family moved to Monroe’s grandmother’s farm in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, where he grew up and went to school. The family also lived for a time in Kent, Ohio. Monroe’s musical career began when he was eleven and was given an old, beat-up trumpet. He soaked it in coal oil for a week to get the valves to work and then proceeded to teach himself to play....