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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

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

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 ...

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....

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Cover Jolson, Al (1886-1950)

Jolson, Al (1886-1950)  

In 

Al Jolson Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111598).

Article

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....

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Cover Kaye, Danny (1913-1987)

Kaye, Danny (1913-1987)  

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Danny Kaye Entertaining 4,000 5th Marine Division troops in Sasebo, Japan. Courtesy of the National Archives (NWDNS-127-N-138204).

Article

Lewis, Ted (06 June 1890–25 August 1971), entertainer, musician, and bandleader  

James Fisher

Lewis, Ted (06 June 1890–25 August 1971), entertainer, musician, and bandleader, was born Theodore Leopold Friedman in rural Circleville, Ohio, the son of an owner of a dry goods store whose name cannot be ascertained. Young Theodore began his show business career performing in a nickelodeon in his hometown and learned to play the clarinet in his school band. As a beginning clarinetist, Lewis was something of a prodigy. Although he was never regarded seriously as a musician, he played easily and improvised naturally. Having no desire to go into the dry goods business and still in his teens, he went to Columbus, Ohio, where for a time he demonstrated instruments in a music store. His freewheeling improvisations amused customers but eventually caused him to lose the job....

Article

Lillie, Beatrice (1894-1989), comic actress  

James Ross Moore

Lillie, Beatrice (29 May 1894–20 January 1989), comic actress, was born Beatrice Gladys Lillie in Toronto, Canada, the younger of two daughters of John Lillie, a schoolmaster, and Lucy Ann Shaw Lillie. Educated in Toronto and at St Agnes College in Belleville, Ontario, Canada, Lillie was sometimes known as Gladys Monteil when appearing with her mother and sister Muriel onstage in Canada....

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Cover Lillie, Beatrice (1894-1989)

Lillie, Beatrice (1894-1989)  

In 

Beatrice Lillie A publicity photograph for High Spirits, c. 1965. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Article

Rooney, Pat (1880-1962), vaudeville, musical theater, and nightclub performer  

Richard Canedo

Rooney, Pat (04 July 1880–09 September 1962), vaudeville, musical theater, and nightclub performer, was born Patrick James Rooney, Jr., in New York City, the son of Patrick James Rooney, Sr., and Josie Granger, entertainers. His mother had danced in the chorus of The Black Crook...

Article

Stratton, Eugene (1861-1918), music hall artiste  

James Ross Moore

Stratton, Eugene (08 May 1861–15 September 1918), music hall artiste, was born Eugene Augustus Ruhlmann in Buffalo, New York, the son of George Ruhlmann, an Alsatian saloonkeeper, and his wife Mary (maiden name unknown). Stratton’s American career was typical of its era. In later life he recalled attending the Christian Brothers school and working as a telegraph messenger, practicing acrobatics and dancing “five or six hours daily” (quoted in Barker). At age ten he teamed up with “a great big fellow” named Lesley, who would toss him around during their burnt-cork act, “The Big and the Little of It,” at Dan Shelby’s Saloon. Stratton next soloed as Master Jean, dancer and tumbler, and by age thirteen reckoned he had become “something of a champion in a small way.” Before he was fifteen he had played in a ...

Article

Walker, George  

See Williams, Bert

Article

Williams, Bert (1874-1922), stage entertainers  

Thomas F. DeFrantz

Williams, Bert (12 November 1874–04 March 1922), and George Walker (1873–06 January 1911), stage entertainers, were born, respectively, Egbert Austin Williams in Nassau, the Bahamas, and George Williams Walker in Lawrence, Kansas. Williams was the son of Frederick Williams, Jr., a waiter, and Julia Monceur. Walker was the son of “Nash” Walker, a policeman; his mother’s name is unknown. Williams moved with his family to Riverside, California, in 1885 and attended Riverside High School. Walker began performing “darkey” material for traveling medicine shows during his boyhood and left Kansas with Dr. Waite’s medicine show. In 1893 the two met in San Francisco, where they first worked together in Martin and Selig’s Minstrels....