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Abbott and Costello (1936–1957), team of comedians on stage, radio, film, and television  

James I. Deutsch

Abbott and Costello (act. 1936–1957), a team of comedians on stage, radio, film, and television, were Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

Bud Abbott (02 October 1895–24 April 1974) was born William Alexander Abbott in Asbury Park, New Jersey. He was the son of Harry Abbott, a circus advance agent, and Rae Fisher, a circus bareback rider. As a child, Abbott moved with his family to Coney Island, New York, where he was quickly attracted to the entertainment world of his parents. He dropped out of grade school to work various jobs at the local amusement park, including selling candy, painting signs, and luring customers inside a mirrored maze, then earning extra money by showing them the way out. At sixteen, Abbott, with his father’s help, was hired as assistant treasurer for a Brooklyn burlesque hall. When not working in the box office, Abbott would study the routines and delivery of the comedians onstage. He held similar positions in other theaters during the next several years, eventually working his way up to treasurer at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. While there, he met Jennie Mae Pratt, a young dancer whose professional name was Betty Smith, whom he married in 1918. They had two children. His wife remained in show business until the early 1930s, performing as a dancer, singer, and comedian. The couple moved to Cleveland and then to Detroit, where Abbott worked as a theater producer, staging shows and hiring performers. Occasionally filling in for comedians who failed to appear, Abbott began to perfect his role as straight man, using his tall, thin frame, dapper appearance, and smooth talk to contrast with the slapstick routines of his burlesque partners. By the early 1930s, he had become a well-known straight man on the Minsky burlesque circuit, playing opposite a variety of comics including Harry Steppe, Harry Evanson, and sometimes even his wife....

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See Abbott and Costello

Article

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....

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Cover Allen, Fred (1894-1956)

Allen, Fred (1894-1956)  

In 

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

Article

Allen, Gracie (1895-1964), actress and comedienne  

Barbara W. Grossman

Allen, Gracie (26 July 1895–27 August 1964), actress and comedienne, was born Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen in San Francisco, California, the daughter of George Allen, an Irish clog and minstrel dancer, and Margaret Darragh. The year of her birth has been cited as late as 1906, but the 1900 U.S. Census confirms the 1895 date. Gracie was the family’s fifth child and fourth daughter. Sometime after 1900 Allen’s father deserted the family, and her mother married Edward Pidgeon, a San Francisco police captain....

Article

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 ...

Article

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....

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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....

Article

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....

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Cover Bergen, Edgar (1903-1978)

Bergen, Edgar (1903-1978)  

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Edgar Bergen [left to right] Edgar Bergen (holding Charlie McCarthy), Rudy Vallee, and Joe Penner, 1957. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-113260).

Article

Brice, Fanny (1891-1951), comedienne and singer  

Herbert G. Goldman

Brice, Fanny (29 October 1891–29 May 1951), comedienne and singer, was born Fania Borach in New York City, the daughter of Charles Borach, a bartender, and Rose Stern. The third of four children, all born on New York’s Lower East Side, she was raised in a Newark, New Jersey, middle-class home complete with household servants and material comforts. Her parents separated in 1902, and Rose moved the family to St. Marks Place in Brooklyn, New York, where Fanny got the remnants of her formal education at public schools....

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Cover Brice, Fanny (1891-1951)

Brice, Fanny (1891-1951)  

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Fanny Brice. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-101799).

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

Carson, Johnny (1925-2005), comedian and television host of the hugely popular The Tonight Show  

Richard Harmond

Carson, Johnny (23 October 1925–23 January 2005), comedian and television host of the hugely popular The Tonight Show, comedian and television host of the hugely popular The Tonight Show, was born in Corning, Iowa, the son of Homer Carson, a lineman with a local power company, and Ruth Hook. Homer moved about, seeking and finding better positions in the utilities industry. The Carson family moved to Norfolk, Nebraska, in 1933, where Homer became a manager of the Iowa-Nebraska Electric Light and Power Company. The Carsons lived on the good side of town and experienced little of the deprivations of the Great Depression. And so when Johnny, in 1937, wanted to send to Chicago for a magic kit, the money was forthcoming. He became fascinated with magic and practiced card and other tricks for hours before a mirror. He gave magic shows at his mother's bridge club and at high school assemblies. Johnny was fourteen when, as the “Great Carsoni,” he gave his first professional performance before the Norfolk Rotary Club. He was paid three dollars....

Article

Costello, Lou (06 March 1906–03 March 1959)  

James I. Deutsch

See Abbott and Costello

Article

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....

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

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

Maker: Harry Warnecke

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Jimmy Durante (10 February 1893–29 January 1980), by Harry Warnecke, 1948

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Elsie M. Warnecke

Article

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....

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Cover Fields, W. C. (1880-1946)
W. C. Fields. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111428).

Article

Foxx, Redd (1922-1991), comedian  

Alexander Battles

Foxx, Redd (09 December 1922–11 November 1991), comedian, was born John Elroy Sanford in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Fred Sanford, an electrician, and Mary Carson, a radio preacher and domestic worker. He spent his early childhood in St. Louis. After his father deserted the home in 1926, he and his mother moved to Chicago, where she worked for the vice president of the Chicago White Sox baseball team. While attending DuSable High School, he and two friends formed a washtub band, the Bon Bons. In 1939 the trio hopped a freight train to New York, where they met with sporadic success. Although they performed mostly on street corners and in subway stations, they occasionally appeared at the Apollo Theatre and on the “Major Bowes Amateur Hour.”...