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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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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, 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....


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 ...


Bayes, Nora (1880-1928), singer and comedienne  

James A. Drake

Bayes, Nora (29 November 1880–19 March 1928), singer and comedienne, was born Theodora Goldberg in Joliet, Illinois, the daughter of Elias Goldberg, a merchant, and Rachel Miller. The product of local public schools, which she left to enter vaudeville, the young Dora Goldberg was largely self-taught musically. She had already made her debut at the Hopkins Theatre in Chicago and had become “Nora Bayes” when, at eighteen, she received her first acclaim at the Hyde and Behman vaudeville theater in Chicago, singing comic songs in dialect while impersonating Yiddish and Irish stereotypical characters then fashionable in vaudeville....


Cover Bayes, Nora (1880-1928)

Bayes, Nora (1880-1928)  


Nora Bayes With her children aboard the S.S. Leviathan, 1924. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111460 ).