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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 ...

Article

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....

Article

Bryant, Dan (1833-1875), actor and musician  

Jack Shalom

Bryant, Dan (09 May 1833–10 April 1875), actor and musician, was born Daniel Webster O’Brien in Troy, New York, the son of Timothy O’Brien, a wood craftsman, and Margaret Duggan, a fiddlemaker. The youngest of three brothers, all blackface minstrels, Bryant made his debut in 1845 carried onstage in a sack at his eldest brother Jerry’s benefit at the Vauxhall Gardens in New York City. He appeared as a jig dancer in 1848 at the Pantheon Theatre in New York and at Thalian Hall a year later in the same city. In the early 1850s he performed with several minstrel troupes, including Charley White’s, Woods and Fellows, and Morris and Campbell’s. By 1856 he was comanaging the company known as Bryant and Mallory’s Campbell’s Minstrels....

Article

Burnett, Alfred (1824-1884), entertainer and journalist  

Kent Neely and Steve West

Burnett, Alfred (02 November 1824–04 April 1884), entertainer and journalist, was born in Bungay, Suffolk, England. The names of his parents and other facts about his early life are unknown. In 1828 he was sent to live with an aunt in New York City. After four years of schooling in Utica, New York, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1836. He later became proprietor of a confectionery business and by 1860 owned three such establishments....

Article

Christy, Edwin Pearce (1814-1862), blackface minstrel and manager  

James Ross Moore

Christy, Edwin Pearce (01 November 1814–21 May 1862), blackface minstrel and manager, was born in New York City, the son of Robert Christy and Ruth Wheaton. Nothing is known about his education. It is reported that he was once an office boy to a New York lawyer, a hotel clerk, and a traveling shoe salesman. In the early 1830s he became a comic blackface singer with the Purdy and Welch Circus in New Orleans, claiming to have been inspired by the singing and dancing of slaves in that city’s Congo Square....

Article

Fields, Lewis Maurice (1867-1941), theater performer and producer  

Armond Fields

Fields, Lewis Maurice (01 January 1867–20 July 1941), theater performer and producer, was born Moses Schoenfeld in Poland, the son of Solomon Schoenfeld, a tailor, and Sarah Franks. The family immigrated to New York City during his childhood. He made his stage debut at the age of ten as half of a bumbling blackface act in a Lower East Side amateur show. From that time on the stage was his passion and his meal ticket. Growing up in the Bowery slums in the 1870s, Schoenfeld embraced acting as an alternative to working in a sweatshop, as did his father and brothers, or running with a gang. He found early encouragement among his classmates at Public School No. 42 on Allen Street; they responded with laughter to his acrobatic antics while the teacher’s back was turned. From the very beginning, Fields’s philosophy was simply, in his own words, “to give the public what it wants.”...

Article

Goodwin, Nathaniel C., Jr. (1857-1919), comedian and actor  

William Stephenson

Goodwin, Nathaniel C., Jr. (25 July 1857–31 January 1919), comedian and actor, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Nathaniel C. Goodwin, Sr., a professional gambler, and Caroline Hinkel. Goodwin attended a private school in Maine. Then at an early age he became a dry goods clerk in Boston, only to be fired for showing up late and doing imitations of the customers. After two years of lessons with a retired actor, which started when he was thirteen, he began to give readings of Shakespeare but found more success in programs of impersonations of entertainers. In his stage debut as a performer, in ...

Article

Hart, Tony (1855-1891), actor and singer  

Julian Mates

Hart, Tony (25 July 1855–04 November 1891), actor and singer, was born Anthony Cannon in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of Anthony Cannon and Mary Sweeney, both of whom had emigrated from Ireland. He put on amateur performances as a child, but a pattern of delinquency began with disruptions at school and culminated in the near murder of a rival during a performance; his parents placed him in the Lyman School (a state reformatory at Westborough, outside Worcester) in 1865. He escaped several months later and traveled to Boston, where he supported himself as a singer, a bootblack, and a newsboy, and then to Providence, where he sang and danced in saloons and was dubbed Master Antonio by a saloon keeper. He joined a touring circus, and then Billy Arlington’s Minstrels; in 1870, at age fifteen, he joined Madame Rentz’s Female Minstrels. Dressed as a little girl, he evoked tears with a sentimental song, “Put Me in My Little Bed.”...

Article

Haverly, Jack H. (1837-1901), minstrel showman  

James Ross Moore

Haverly, Jack H. (30 June 1837–28 September 1901), minstrel showman, was born Christopher Heverly in Boiling Springs (later known as Axemann), Pennsylvania, the son of Christopher Heverly, whose occupation is unknown, and Eliza Steel. After schooling in Axemann, Heverly moved to Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, in 1854 as a tailor’s apprentice. A dispute with the tailor led to a thirty-day jail sentence for Heverly, who soon left for Ohio. Many of the details of his next few years are obscure, though he apparently performed a number of jobs, including “baggage smasher” on the railroads. By 1864 he was well settled in Toledo and opened his first variety theater. A printer’s misspelling of his name on a batch of huge colored posters—one of many trademarks of his later work—was more cheaply left uncorrected and Heverly became Haverly. He had married Sara Hechsinger, one-half of the singing Duval Sisters, probably by 1864. She died in 1867 in Toledo, and he married her sister Eliza Hechsinger that same year. He had no children....

Article

Hewlett, James S. (fl. 1821–1831), actor and singer  

George A. Thompson

Hewlett, James S. (fl. 1821–1831), actor and singer, , is said to have been born on Long Island, New York, presumably toward the end of the eighteenth century. His parents are unknown, and nothing is known about his childhood. As a young man he worked as steward on passenger ships, and he is said to have been an avid playgoer. In 1820 New York City had a black population of about 11,000, out of a total of about 125,000. The one theater in town, the Park, admitted African Americans to only a section of one of the balconies. When ...

Article

Irwin, May (1862-1938), comedienne  

Herbert G. Goldman

Irwin, May (27 June 1862–22 October 1938), comedienne, was born Georgia Campbell in Whitby, Ontario, Canada, the daughter of Robert E. Campbell, a businessman, and Jane Draper. Georgia and her older sister Ada sang in the local Episcopal church choir and frequently performed duets for the entertainment of family friends. They attended school at St. Cecilia Convent in Port Hope, Ontario, until 1875, when their father failed in business and their mother, seeking to support the family, put them on the stage. The sisters made their debut at the Theatre Comique in Rochester, New York, on 8 February 1875, billed by manager Daniel Shelby as “May and Flo, the Irwin Sisters.” They continued touring for two years, performing African-American dialect songs like “Don’t You Hear Dem Bells?” Jane Campbell all but ran her daughters’ careers for some years. “I never make a move without consulting her,” May said at age thirty-four, “and if she doesn’t like a song, that settles it” ( ...

Article

Kelly, Walter C. (1873-1939), comedian and actor  

James A. Drake

Kelly, Walter C. (29 October 1873–07 January 1939), comedian and actor, was born in Mineville, New York, the son of John Kelly, an insurance broker, and Mary (maiden name unknown). Growing up in Mineville, Kelly became a machinist’s apprentice, and while still in his teens he left his hometown to work in the shipyards of Newport News, Virginia....

Article

Raymond, John T. (1836-1887), comic actor  

Eric Samuelsen

Raymond, John T. (05 April 1836–10 April 1887), comic actor, was born in Buffalo, New York, to a family named O’Brian or O’Brien. Nothing more is known about his parents, his early education, or why and when he chose his stage name. Raymond began his acting career in 1853 at the Rochester Theatre in New York, playing the role of Lopez in a little-known play called ...

Article

Ritchard, Cyril (1898-1977), theatrical comedian, dancer, and director  

James Ross Moore

Ritchard, Cyril (01 December 1898–18 December 1977), theatrical comedian, dancer, and director, was born Cyril Trimnell-Ritchard in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, the son of Herbert Trimnell-Ritchard, a hotel owner, and Margaret Collins. After Jesuit schooling, in 1916 Ritchard entered Sydney University, where for one year he pursued a medical career. At nineteen he was a chorus boy in Oscar Straus’s ...

Article

Weber, Joseph Morris (1867-1942), vaudeville comedian and producer  

Paul Distler

Weber, Joseph Morris (11 August 1867–10 May 1942), vaudeville comedian and producer, was born Joseph Moishe Weber in New York City, the son of Abraham Weber, a schechter (kosher butcher and lay officer of the synagogue), and Gertrude Enoch. As the seventeenth child in this Jewish immigrant family from Poland (via a stopover in Birmingham, England, where the family learned English), Weber began at age seven working part-time in a cigarette factory while still attending Public School 42 on Allen Street in New York’s Lower East Side. His life changed dramatically the following year when he literally bumped into another immigrant child, ...