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Allen, Fred (31 May 1894–17 March 1956), humorist, was born John Florence Sullivan in Somerville, Massachusetts, the son of James Henry Sullivan, a bookbinder, and Cecilia Herlihy. Allen and his younger brother were raised by their aunt Elizabeth Herlihy Lovely, following the death of their mother in 1897. The boys remained a part of their aunt’s extended, working-class, Irish-American family when their brooding, alcoholic father remarried in 1909, residing in Allston and later the Dorchester section of Boston. Allen graduated from Boston’s High School of Commerce in 1911 but did not seek a business career. Among James’s few contributions to his son’s life in comedy was the job of bookrunner that Allen filled, beginning at age fourteen, in the Boston Public Library, his father’s employer. While awaiting call slips in the stacks, Allen read about comedy and practiced juggling. Fascinated with vaudeville, America’s most popular live amusement in 1910, and a hanger-on in Boston’s theatrical district, he appeared as a comic juggler in the library’s employee talent show in the summer of 1911. Soon he was a frequent contestant in amateur vaudeville shows in the Boston area, earning sufficient prize money to encourage him to declare professional status in 1912. Although one-night stands took Allen’s act as far afield as Maine and Connecticut, in September 1914 the young actor moved to New York....

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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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Bergen, Edgar (16 February 1903–30 September 1978), actor and ventriloquist, was born Edgar John Berggren in Chicago, Illinois, the son of John Berggren and Nell Swanson, stolid Swedish immigrants who lived in various places in Illinois and for a time owned a dairy farm in Michigan. From an early age Edgar was attracted to show business, especially to local fairs, circuses, and vaudeville. At age eleven he sent off a quarter for “The Wizard’s Manual,” which taught, among other things, “Secrets of Magic, Black Art, Mind Reading, Ventriloquism, and Hypnotism.” Edgar found all of these arts attractive and shortly was performing magic tricks and ventriloquism for his family and neighborhood children....

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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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Brothers, Joyce (20 October 1927–13 May 2013), psychologist, television and radio personality, and columnist, was born Joyce Diane Bauer in Brooklyn, New York, to Morris K. Bauer and Estelle Rappaport Bauer, a Jewish couple who shared a law practice. She and sister, Elaine, were raised in Queens, where Joyce was an honors student at Far Rockaway High School....

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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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Cooke, Alistair (20 November 1908–30 March 2004), journalist, was born Alfred Cooke in Salford, a suburb of Manchester, England, to Samuel Cooke, an iron fitter, insurance salesman, and Methodist lay preacher, and Mary Byrne Cooke. His lifelong interest in America began during World War I, when he became “fascinated” by seven American soldiers billeted in his family's home in Blackpool on Britain's northwest coast (Stewart, p. 5). While at Cambridge University in 1930 he took the name “Alistair,” edited ...

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Cronkite, Walter Leland, Jr. (04 November 1916–17 July 2009), broadcast journalist, was born in Saint Joseph, Missouri, the son of Walter Leland Cronkite, a dentist, and Helen Fritsche Cronkite. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Kansas City. When he was ten years old his father accepted a position with a dental college in Houston, Texas....

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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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Fadiman, Clifton (15 May 1904–20 June 1999), literary critic, anthologist, and radio personality, was born Clifton Paul Fadiman in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants Isidore Michael Fadiman, a pharmacist, and Grace Elizabeth Fadiman (maiden name unknown), a nurse. Fadiman, who was known to friends and family as “Kip,” began his lifelong passion for reading at age four, when he reportedly read his first book. By the time he was a teenager, he had read most or all of Sophocles, Dante, and Milton, among others. Fadiman later remembered that “by the end of high school I was not of course an educated man, but I knew how to try to become one” (quoted in Cross)....

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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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Godfrey, Arthur (31 August 1903–16 March 1983), broadcaster, was born in New York City, the son of Arthur Hanbury Godfrey, a writer and lecturer, and Kathryn Morton. He was raised on the streets of the city’s Irish-American ghettos. Following the death of his father, Godfrey left school at age fifteen. He traveled across the country for three years, working as a truck driver, an office boy, and a coal miner. He later recalled having earned his diploma in “the school of hard knocks” during this period. He joined the navy in 1921, serving as a radio operator until his discharge in 1924. He returned to civilian life still unsure of what he wanted to do with his future. Once again he drifted from one job to the next. He had a natural affinity for sales, and one of the jobs he took, selling cemetery plots, provided him with commissions of approximately $10,000. He had taken up the banjo while still in the navy; eager to perform, he invested this bankroll in a vaudeville troupe that went under in California in 1927. Broke, Godfrey hitched a ride to Chicago. One of the fares he picked up while driving a cab there was a shipmate from his navy days who had just enlisted in the Coast Guard. With nothing more promising before him, Godfrey enlisted as well....

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Gosden, Freeman (05 May 1899–10 December 1982), producer, writer, and performer on radio, was born Freeman Fisher Gosden in Richmond Virginia, the son of Walter Gosden and Emma L. Smith Gosden. His father had been a Confederate army officer, and—in a familiar pattern of nineteenth-century southern life—the once-prominent family found itself in modest circumstances following the Civil War. One of five children, Freeman began appearing as a carnival performer at the age of ten. He worked in traveling shows around the South as a magician's assistant, a clog dancer, a ukulele player, and a singer. After only a minimum of formal schooling at a military academy in Atlanta, he dropped out to become a tobacco agent and then a used-car salesman. When the United States entered the First World War in 1917, he joined the navy and was trained as a radio operator....

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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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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....