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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 ...

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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, ...

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

Article

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....

Article

Bland, James Allen (1854-1911), African-American minstrel performer and composer  

William Lichtenwanger

Bland, James Allen (22 October 1854–05 May 1911), African-American minstrel performer and composer, was born in Flushing, Long Island, New York, the son of Allen M. Bland, an incipient lawyer, and Lidia Ann Cromwell of Brandywine, Delaware, of an emancipated family. Bland’s father, whose family had been free for several generations, attended law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and in 1867 became the first black to be appointed an examiner in the U.S. Patent Office....

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Cover Borge, Victor (03 January 1909–23 December 2000)

Borge, Victor (03 January 1909–23 December 2000)  

In 

Victor Borge. Charcoal, conte... on paper, c.1954-1959, by René Robert Bouché. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Article

Borge, Victor (03 January 1909–23 December 2000), entertainer  

Ann T. Keene

Borge, Victor (03 January 1909–23 December 2000), entertainer, was born Borge (pronounced BOR-guh) Rosenbaum in Copenhagen, Denmark, to Bernhard Rosenbaum, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, and Frederikke Lichtinger. His father was a violinist long associated with the Royal Danish Symphony, which also performed with the local opera company; his mother was a classical pianist. Borge grew up in a secular household surrounded by music. He was especially drawn to opera, and early on he aspired to become an opera conductor. He began piano lessons with his mother at the age of three and was quickly proclaimed a prodigy. After making his concert debut in Copenhagen five years later, he continued his studies on a scholarship at the Copenhagen Music Conservatory....

Article

Cantor, Eddie (September 1892?–10 October 1964), entertainer  

Herbert G. Goldman

Cantor, Eddie ( September 1892?–10 October 1964), entertainer, was born Israel Iskowitz in New York City, the son of Mechel Iskowitz, a violinist, and Meta Kantrowitz. Orphaned at the age of three, he was raised by Esther Kantrowitz, his maternal grandmother. He was educated in the public schools of New York’s Lower East Side. His grandmother registered him as “Israel Kantrowitz,” but the name was subsequently anglicized to “Isidore Kanter” by a school official. Kanter, who altered the spelling of his name to “Cantor” upon embarking on a show business career in 1911, grew up on the streets. His grandmother, an Orthodox Jew, earned a living selling candles and other household items and by securing employment for young immigrants as maids in East Side homes....

Article

Cohan, George M. (3 or 4 July 1878–05 November 1942), performer, writer of songs, musicals, and plays, and producer  

Julian Mates

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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Cover Cohan, George M. (3 or 4 July 1878–05 November 1942)

Cohan, George M. (3 or 4 July 1878–05 November 1942)  

Maker: Carl Van Vechten

In 

George M. Cohan Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1933. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LOT 12735, no. 236 P&P).

Article

Davis, Sammy, Jr. (1925-1990), variety performer and entertainer  

Carolyn L. Quin

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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Cover Davis, Sammy, Jr. (1925-1990)

Davis, Sammy, Jr. (1925-1990)  

Maker: Carl Van Vechten

In 

Sammy Davis, Jr. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1956. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-114446).

Article

Emmett, Daniel Decatur (1815-1904), minstrel, stage performer, and composer  

John E. Druesedow

Emmett, Daniel Decatur (29 October 1815–28 June 1904), minstrel, stage performer, and composer, was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, the son of Abraham Emmett, a blacksmith, and Sarah Zerrick. His brother Lafayette Emmett achieved prominence as the first chief justice of Minnesota. Coming from sparsely populated Knox County in central Ohio (frontier land in 1815), Emmett had little schooling but apparently gained a substantial degree of literacy in his early teens through his work as an apprentice for two newspapers, the ...

Article

Fields, Benny (1894-1959), performer  

Charles W. Stein

Fields, Benny (14 June 1894–16 August 1959), performer, was born Benjamin Geisenfeld in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Nothing is known about his parents and little is known of his early life other than that he started singing at the age of five. He entered show business in his teens and soon became known as “the minstrel man of vaudeville.” Fields was primarily a vocalist, sometimes doing a solo act but often performing as a member of a team or trio. In 1920 he was appearing with the Fields, Davis and Salisbury trio in a second-rate nightclub in Chicago when he met Blossom Seeley, a popular blues singer during vaudeville’s heyday. Fields always insisted that it was Seeley who really discovered him. The two became romantically linked and were married in 1922. With Fields doing the comedy and a bit of vocalizing, they soon became a successful team in vaudeville. In 1925 ...

Article

Ford, Whitey (1901-1986), vaudeville and country musician and comedian  

Patrick Joseph O’Connor

Ford, Whitey (12 May 1901–20 June 1986), vaudeville and country musician and comedian, also known as the Duke of Paducah, was born in DeSoto, Missouri, fifty miles from St. Louis. The names and occupations of his parents are unknown. When he was one year old his mother died, and he was sent to Little Rock, Arkansas, to be reared by a grandmother. Ford attended Peabody Grammar School, acting in school plays and performing in talent shows. He ran away at age seventeen to join the navy during World War I and served four years. During this time he practiced on the tenor banjo, at that time a competitor with the guitar, until he became an accomplished performer. ...

Article

Haley, Jack (1899-1979), comedian, singer, and dancer  

William Stephenson

Haley, Jack (10 August 1899–06 June 1979), comedian, singer, and dancer, was born John Haley in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of John Haley, a ship’s navigator, and Ellen Curley. Haley’s desire to be in show business began in childhood, when he appeared in a church entertainment at the age of six. After completing his schooling at Boston English High School, he became an apprentice electrician at his mother’s urging. As soon as he had saved up some of his apprentice earnings, however, he left to make his way on the stage....

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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 ...

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Hogan, Ernest (1860-1909), minstrel show and vaudeville entertainer and songwriter  

Dennis Wepman

Hogan, Ernest (1860–12 May 1909), minstrel show and vaudeville entertainer and songwriter, was born Reuben Crowder (or Crowders) in the African American “Shake Rag” district of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Nothing is known of his family or early youth, but by his early teens he was supporting himself as an actor, singer, dancer, and comedian. He appeared with a traveling “Tom show”—a repertory company presenting ...

Article

Jessel, George (1898-1981), entertainer  

Charles W. Carey Jr.

Jessel, George (03 April 1898–24 May 1981), entertainer, was born George Albert Jessel in New York City, the son of Joseph Aaron Jessel, a playwright and traveling salesman, and Charlotte Schwartz. He began his singing career when he was nine years old by serenading customers in his maternal grandfather’s tailor shop. Later that year, using the stage name “McKinley,” he began singing baritone with the Imperial Trio at a Harlem theater where his mother worked as a ticket-taker and soon was appearing solo as Little Georgie Jessel. After his father died in 1908, he cut short his formal education after only six months to join Gus Edwards’s School Boys and Girls, a traveling vaudeville troupe. He toured with a number of Edwards’s shows until 1914, when his voice changed and he lost his boyish appeal, whereupon he went to England to perform as a singer and comedian for the next three years....

Article

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....