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Adams, Don (1923-2005), comedian and actor  

Richard H. Gentile

Adams, Don (13 April 1923–25 September 2005), comedian and actor, was born Donald James Yarmy in New York City, the second of the three children of William Yarmy, a restaurant manager, and Consuelo Morgan. Adams, who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, liked to read and draw but had an aversion to New York public schools. Much of his youth was spent frequenting the movie theaters on 42nd Street, where he believed he received a better education. At parties he and his neighborhood friends, a number of whom also forged careers in show business, tried to top each other performing comic bits. Adams's forte became impersonations of the Hollywood stars of the day....


Cover Adams, Don (1923-2005)

Adams, Don (1923-2005)  


Don Adams. With Barbara Feldon, on the set of the spoof spy showGet Smart, 10 September 1965. Courtesy of AP Images.


Adams, Joey (1911-1999), comedian, writer, and actor  

Dennis Wepman

Adams, Joey (06 January 1911–02 December 1999), comedian, writer, and actor, was born Joseph Abramowitz in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Nathan Abramowitz, a tailor, and Ida Chonin. Growing up in Brownsville, a predominantly Jewish section of Brooklyn, Joey attended local public schools P.S. 171, Patrick Henry Junior High School, and DeWitt Clinton High School. He studied at City College of New York until his senior year but, already active in vaudeville, he dropped out shortly before graduating, in 1931, to pursue his ambitions as an entertainer. As a young child he met ...


Akeman, Stringbean (1914-1973), banjo player and comedian  

Colin Escott

Akeman, Stringbean (17 June 1914–10 November 1973), banjo player and comedian, was born David Akeman in Annville, Kentucky, the son of James Akeman and Alice (maiden name unknown). Situated halfway between Corbin and Richmond, Annville was part of a region that produced several other notable banjoists, such as ...


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....


Cover Allen, Fred (1894-1956)

Allen, Fred (1894-1956)  


Fred Allen. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-105144).


Allen, Steve (1921-2000), comedian, author, songwriter  

Bruce L. Janoff

Allen, Steve (26 December 1921–30 October 2000), comedian, author, songwriter, was born Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen in New York City, the son of vaudeville comedians Carroll William Allen and Isabelle Donohue, who performed under the stage names Billy Allen and Belle Montrose. Literally born into show business, Allen toured the vaudeville circuit with his parents from infancy until his father died suddenly when Allen was only eighteen months old. Because his mother chose to continue her career, she left her young son in the care of her eccentric family in Chicago. In his first autobiography, ...


Cover Allen, Steve (1921-2000)
Steve Allen Used with the permission of Bill Allen, Meadowlane Enterprises, Inc.


Arbuckle, Roscoe “Fatty” (1887-1933), actor  

Thomas W. Collins Jr.

Arbuckle, Roscoe “Fatty” (24 March 1887–29 June 1933), actor, was born Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle in Smith Center, Kansas, the son of William Arbuckle, a wheat farmer. His mother's name and occupation are unknown. At birth, he weighed approximately fourteen pounds; his mother almost died during the delivery, and her health remained tenuous throughout his childhood. His father, an alcoholic, blamed him for her condition and routinely beat him and berated him about his weight. Around 1889 his family moved to Santa Ana, California. Shortly thereafter his father moved alone to northern California, where he worked as a crop picker and eventually purchased a small hotel in San Jose....


Cover Arbuckle, Roscoe “Fatty” (1887-1933)

Arbuckle, Roscoe “Fatty” (1887-1933)  


Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. [left to right] Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Mabel Normand, c. 1915, in one of their Keystone films. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-10081).


Armstrong, Harry (1879-1951), vaudeville performer, pianist, and popular composer  

Barbara Tischler

Armstrong, Harry (22 July 1879–28 February 1951), vaudeville performer, pianist, and popular composer, was born Henry Worthington Armstrong in Somerville, Massachusetts, the son of Henry Armstrong, a piano salesman, and Elizabeth Stuart. Armstrong competed as a professional boxer before joining a street corner vocal quartet in Boston in 1896. He moved to New York in 1898 and played piano in a restaurant in Coney Island and later at the Sans Souci Music Hall in Manhattan. He composed and performed his own songs, many of which were published by the firm of M. Witmark, where Armstrong worked as a rehearsal pianist....


Backus, Charles (20 October 1831–21 June 1883), actor and minstrel troupe founder  

Susan F. Clark

Backus, Charles (20 October 1831–21 June 1883), actor and minstrel troupe founder, was born in Rochester, New York, the son of a prominent physician. His parents’ names are unknown. Backus’s grandfather Azel Backus was the first president of Hamilton College and a deeply religious man. Despite the Backus family plans of a literary or professional career for Charley, the young boy’s affinity for comedic imitation was apparent from his earliest school days. After completing his public school education, Backus made his acting debut in 1851 in the role of Jerry Clip in ...


Backus, Jim (1913-1989), actor, comedian, and author  

Ben Alexander

Backus, Jim (25 February 1913–03 July 1989), actor, comedian, and author, was born James Gilmore Backus in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Russell Gould Backus, a mechanical engineer and president of a local heavy-machinery company, and Daisy Gilmore-Taylor. They lived in Bratenahl, an upper-class borough of Cleveland. Jim attended the Bratenahl School, then as a teenager went to Kentucky Military Institute, but when he tried to enlist, the army rejected him, telling him that he had a vertical stomach and would have to eat six times a day to stay nourished. However, at school he began a lifelong friendship with fellow cadet and future movie actor ...


Baird, Bil (1904-1987), master puppeteer, the eldest son of William Hull Baird and Louise Hetzel Baird  

Jean Sanders

Baird, Bil (15 August 1904–18 March 1987), master puppeteer, the eldest son of William Hull Baird and Louise Hetzel Baird, was born William Britton Baird in Grand Island, Nebraska. His father, a chemical engineer, was manager of the American Crystal Sugar plant, the first beet sugar plant in the United States. His job required the family to move several times, but in 1915 they settled permanently in Mason City, Iowa. Baird's artistic talents were products of both heredity and environment. When Baird was seven, his father made a puppet for him and he was hooked. As a youth, his father had traveled with ...


Barton, James Edward (1890-1962), vaudeville performer and actor  

John Bush Jones

Barton, James Edward (01 November 1890–19 February 1962), vaudeville performer and actor, was born in Gloucester, New Jersey, the son of James Charles Barton, an interlocutor with the West and Primrose Minstrels, and Clara Anderson, a vaudeville performer. At age two Barton was carried on stage by his parents in a production of ...


Beck, Martin (1865-1940), vaudeville manager  

Charles W. Stein

Beck, Martin (31 August 1865–16 November 1940), vaudeville manager, was born in German Czechoslovakia. Little is known of his early years. At about the age of eighteen he immigrated to the United States as part of a troupe of European actors. Beck’s first theatrical experience was as a German actor, appearing at the Thalia Theater in New York and later with the Waldamer Stock Company in St. Louis. The group was not successful in America and soon broke up. Having no means of livelihood, Beck turned to any form of endeavor that would enable him to survive. After working at a number of menial jobs he turned up in Chicago as a waiter in a music hall where he also served as part-time bartender, earning the nickname “Two Beers Beck.” The year was 1893, and the World’s Fair was in full swing. Beck’s previous theatrical experience came in handy, and he soon found work as a part-time stage manager. Other jobs followed, and he quickly rose to the position of house manager and then bookkeeper....


Belushi, John (1949-1982), actor-comedian  

Melissa Vickery-Bareford

Belushi, John (24 January 1949–05 May 1982), actor-comedian, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Adam Belushi, the owner of a local restaurant, and Agnes (maiden name unknown). John was the eldest of three sons. His younger brother Jim also became an actor. An aggressive and difficult child, Belushi often got into trouble as a youngster. At Central High School in Wheaton, Illinois, however, he satisfied an intense need for attention by participating in such extracurricular activities as football, wrestling, choir, forensics, and the drama club and by playing drums in a rock ’n’ roll band. In his senior year he was captain of the football team as well as homecoming king....


Benny, Jack (1894-1974), comedian on radio, in films, and on television  

Joseph Boskin

Benny, Jack (14 February 1894–26 December 1974), comedian on radio, in films, and on television, was born Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in Waukegan, Illinois. His father, Meyer Kubelsky, only recently had come to the United States from Russia. His mother was Emma Sachs, the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants; she met her husband in Chicago through a matchmaker. Meyer Kubelsky began selling household goods from a horse and wagon traveling along the shores of Lake Michigan; he then became a saloon-keeper and eventually purchased a haberdashery shop....


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....