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Bubbles, John (19 February 1902–18 May 1986), tap dancer and vaudevillian, was born John William Sublett in Louisville, Kentucky, where he attended grammar and high school. His parents’ names are unknown. He began entertaining in his neighborhood as a singer beginning when he was about seven. For a time, he worked in vaudeville in Louisville and on the road. While working as a pin setter at a local bowling alley, Sublett met Ford Lee Washington. They formed a vaudeville act called “Buck and Bubbles” in 1915, with Sublett taking the name of “Bubbles” while Washington became “Buck.” Until Washington’s death on 31 January 1955, they worked together to become one of vaudeville’s legendary acts....

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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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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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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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Gray, Gilda (24 October 1899–22 December 1959), silent film and stage dancer, was born Marianna Michalska in Cracow, Poland, the daughter of Maximilian Michalski and Wanda (maiden name unknown). The family emigrated to Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1907 and then moved to Cudahy, Wisconsin, where Marianna was educated at a parochial school. In 1912 she married bartender John Gorecki with whom she had one son, Martin....

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Houdini, Harry (24 March 1874–31 October 1926), magician and escape artist, was born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary, the son of Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss and Cecelia Steiner. In 1878 the family immigrated to Appleton, Wisconsin. The town’s small Jewish congregation hired Mayer Samuel as its rabbi but released him after four years. He began a hapless twelve-year search for a settled rabbinical post to support his wife and seven children and was reduced to accepting provisions from a relief society and selling part of his scholarly library. Young Ehrich once ran away from home and later recalled the period as “hard and cruel years when I rarely had the bare necessities of life.”...

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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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Kellerman, Annette (06 July 1887–05 November 1975), swimming, vaudeville, and film star, was born in Sydney, Australia, the daughter of Frederick Kellerman, a musician, and Alice Charbonnet, a concert pianist. A weak child, Kellerman began swimming as physical therapy for a mild case of polio. Feeling more graceful in water than on land in her leg braces, swimming literally became her life. As the strength in her legs increased, she also learned to dive. In 1902 she won her first title as Swim Champion of New South Wales and set a world record of 78 seconds for 100 yards using the newly introduced racing technique of the double-over arm crawl and scissors kick. By her own admission, she also reigned as the champion girl diver of Australia the same year. The next year, she set a world record for the mile at 32:29 minutes, subsequently lowering it to 28:00 minutes. Her first of many record-setting distance swims covered 10 miles in Australia’s Yarrow River. She began professional swimming and diving exhibitions in Sydney, then toured Melbourne and Adelaide....

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Lee, Gypsy Rose (09 January 1914–26 April 1970), striptease artist, burlesque entertainer, and writer, was born Rose Louise Hovick in Seattle, Washington, the daughter of John Olaf Hovick, a newspaper reporter, and Rose Thompson. Lee’s parents divorced when she was about four years old. She and her sister June (who later became screen actress June Havoc) lived with their mother’s father in Seattle, where Rose Hovick, a prototypical stage mother, drove the girls into a show business career. They began by performing at several lodges to which their grandfather belonged. Lee described herself as a child as being “big for my age and more than just chubby” with the nickname of “Plug.” Lee once described her childhood to a reporter: “At that time I wanted to die—just for the vacation.”...

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Nesbit, Evelyn Florence (25 December 1884–17 January 1967), model and showgirl, was born in Tarentum, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Winfield Scott Nesbit, a lawyer, and Elizabeth (maiden name unknown). While her early childhood was moderately comfortable, Evelyn, along with her mother and younger brother, endured considerable financial hardship following the sudden death of her father in 1893. The family moved first to Pittsburgh, and later to Philadelphia, where Nesbit’s mother struggled to earn a living in a variety of positions—from boardinghouse keeper to sales clerk—while her children attended elementary school. Evelyn’s secondary education was interrupted when she began working as a stockgirl in Philadelphia’s Wanamaker’s department store; although she returned to her studies briefly in her later teens, she never received a high school diploma....

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Russell, Lillian (04 December 1861–06 June 1922), entertainer, actress, and singer, was born Helen Louise Leonard in Clinton, Iowa, to a well-to-do family. Her father, Charles E. Leonard, was the publisher of the local newspaper, the Clinton Herald, and her mother, Cynthia Howland Van Name, was an early and ardent feminist. Her family moved to Chicago in 1865, and she attended local schools, completing her formal education at the Park Institute, a finishing school. However, as she later recalled, her most significant education occurred at home: “Our family was a musical one. We sang and danced and played, and all my sisters had exceptionally fine voices, which were carefully trained.” Her parents subsequently divorced after separating in 1877, and, with her mother and sisters, she moved to New York City. Within a short time, she secured a chorus part in Edward E. Rice’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ...

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Tanguay, Eva (01 August 1878–11 January 1947), entertainer, was born in Marbleton, Quebec, Canada, the daughter of Octave Tanguay, a physician, and Adele Pajeau. Around 1884 the Tanguays moved to Holyoke, Massachusetts, where Eva attended public school and her father’s health broke under the strain of a huge work load and financial pressure. After his death in 1886, Eva won first prize at an amateur contest at Parsons’ Hall in Holyoke; she made her professional acting debut in ...

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Templeton, Fay (25 December 1866–03 October 1939), actress, singer, and comedienne, was born in modest circumstances in Little Rock, Arkansas, the daughter of John Templeton and Alice Vane. She began her stage career playing Cupid, and on 19 August 1873 she played Puck in ...