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Allen, Fred (1894-1956), humorist  

Alan Havig

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....


Bergen, Edgar (1903-1978), actor and ventriloquist  

George H. Douglas

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....


Cole, Nat King (1919-1965), pianist and singer  

Ronald P. Dufour

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 ...


Cooke, Alistair (1908-2004), journalist  

Bruce J. Evensen

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 ...


Cronkite, Walter Leland, Jr. (1916-2009), broadcast journalist  

Michael J. Socolow

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....


Durante, Jimmy (10 February 1893–29 January 1980), comedian  

Stephen M. Archer

Durante, Jimmy (10 February 1893–29 January 1980), comedian, was born James Francis Durante on New York City’s East Side, the son of Barthelmeo Durante and Roséa Millino. His French-Italian father operated a barber shop. His mother endowed him with the enormous nose that was to become his trademark. After dropping out of school in the seventh grade, Jimmy tried a variety of odd jobs, but he spent most of his time at a piano his father had bought for him, complete with lessons. Although his father hoped that his son would pursue a classical career, by age seventeen Durante was playing in Diamond Tony’s saloon (“Twenty-five bucks a week; hours from eight in the evening until unconscious”) on Coney Island. Later he played ragtime piano at various clubs and organized a five-man jazz band for a club in Harlem. There he met a singer, Jeanne Olson, whom he hired and, in 1921, married. They had no children. Another new acquaintance was Eddie Jackson, a singer....


Fadiman, Clifton (1904-1999), literary critic, anthologist, and radio personality  

Stacey Hamilton

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)....


Fields, W. C. (1880-1946), comedian in vaudeville, film, and radio  

Joseph Boskin

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....


Gleason, Jackie (1916-1987), actor and comedian  

William Hughes

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....


Godfrey, Arthur (1903-1983), broadcaster  

Jay Boyer

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....


Gosden, Freeman (1899-1982), producer, writer, and performer on radio  

David Marc

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....


Hall, Wendall (1896-1969), singer, composer, music publisher, and advertising executive  

Michael R. Pitts

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...


Jolson, Al (1886-1950), singer and entertainer  

Herbert G. Goldman

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....


Kaye, Danny (1913-1987), entertainer  

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....


Kovacs, Ernie (1919-1962), television comedian and actor  

William Hughes

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....


Monroe, Vaughn Wilton (1911-1973), bandleader, singer, and businessman  

Marcia B. Dinneen

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....


Moore, Garry (1915-1993), radio and television personality  

Mary C. Kalfatovic

Moore, Garry (31 January 1915–28 November 1993), radio and television personality, was born Thomas Garrison Morfit in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Mason P. Morfit, a socially prominent attorney, and Louise Spencer. In the early 1930s, while a student at Baltimore City College, a public high school, he helped write material for a revue put on by a local amateur theater group. His work on the revue drew the attention of the writer ...


Rogers, Fred (1928-2003), television host  

Ann T. Keene

Rogers, Fred (20 March 1928–27 February 2003), television host, was born Fred McFeely Rogers in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the son of James H. Rogers, a manufacturer of bricks used in steel furnaces, and his wife, the former Nancy McFeely. Fred and his sister grew up in comfortable circumstances, and he was popular with his peers. In Latrobe, a small city in southwestern Pennsylvania that is about forty miles east of Pittsburgh, Rogers attended a local elementary school and then went on to Latrobe High School, where he edited the yearbook and was elected president of the student council. As a teenager he also wrote feature stories for the local newspaper. Upon his graduation in 1946 he enrolled at Dartmouth College as a Romance languages major but soon withdrew; when asked later about this decision, he said only that he found the campus atmosphere “too rah‐rah” for his personality and interests. In the fall of 1947 Rogers entered Rollins College, located in Winter Park, Florida, where he majored in music composition and graduated in 1951....


Rogers, Will (04 November 1879–15 August 1935), entertainer and social commentator  

Peter C. Rollins

Rogers, Will (04 November 1879–15 August 1935), entertainer and social commentator, was born William Penn Adair Rogers near Oologah, Oklahoma, in what was then the Cooweescoowee District of Indian Territory, the son of Clement Vann Rogers and Mary America Schrimsher, Cherokee ranchers. Rogers County, which contains both Oologah, site of the historic Rogers home, and Claremore, site of the Will Rogers Memorial and Museum, is named after the prominent father, not the prominent son. “Uncle Clem” was a major player in Oklahoma politics before and after statehood (1907), serving as a judge, as a member of the Dawes Commission (to distribute Indian lands prior to statehood), and as the first local banker. Will’s loving wife, the former Betty Blake, whom he married in 1908, later remembered that “Will had everything he wanted. He had spending money and the best string of cow ponies in the country. No boy in Indian Territory had more than Uncle Clem’s boy.” (Yet being “Uncle Clem’s boy” could have its downside, too.)...


Sagan, Carl (1934-1996), space scientist, author, science popularizer, TV personality, and antinuclear weapons activist  

Keay Davidson

Sagan, Carl (09 November 1934–20 December 1996), space scientist, author, science popularizer, TV personality, and antinuclear weapons activist, was born Carl Edward Sagan in Brooklyn, New York. He was the son of Rachel Molly Gruber Sagan and garment industry worker Samuel Sagan, an immigrant from the Ukraine. Carl Sagan's Jewish background encouraged him “to ask questions early,” as he later observed (Davidson, p. 57); so did his mother's skeptical, sometimes acidic personality. At age five, he became interested in astronomy when he read in a library book that the stars are distant versions of our sun. His interest in science soared when his parents took him to the New York World's Fair of 1939–1940, which offered an optimistic and (as he later acknowledged) “extremely technocratic” view of the future (Davidson, p. 14)....