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Kevin Byrne

vaudeville entertainer and theatrical entrepreneur, was born in Dallas, Texas. The names of his parents are unknown. Though in later interviews Dudley frequently changed the story of how he broke into show business, his earliest stage work was most likely in Texas and Louisiana as part of a medicine show. This job, in which he played music and told jokes to draw a crowd to the pitchman and his wares, was an appropriate beginning for a man who always sought to be the center of attention. Dudley eventually became an artist and businessman who, as demonstrated by both his actions and writings, was passionately concerned with cultivating the rights and strengthening the dignity of African American performers during an era when what it meant to be a black entertainer was greatly in flux.

Dudley s apprenticeship in the professional theatrical world took place during the last decade of the ...

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Theresa Vara-Dannen

banjoist, actor, minstrel comedian, was born in Hartford, Connecticut to Sampson Easton and his wife, Louisa (maiden name unknown). Although there has been some confusion among scholars about his date of birth, the 1850 Federal Census indicates that a male child named “Hoser” (sic) was one year old, living with his Massachusetts-born father, a laborer and later “hackman” (a carriage driver for hire), and his Connecticut-born mother. His paternal grandfather, after whom he was named, was Hosea Easton, the minister of the Talcott Street Congregational Church in Hartford. The first Hosea Easton earned great respect for his groundbreaking work, A Treatise On the Intellectual Character, and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the U. States; And the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them; With A Sermon on the Duty of the Church To Them (1837 The family was also descended directly from James ...

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Alexander Battles

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 Theater and on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour.

Friends nicknamed Sanford “Chicago Red” because of his red hair. He then added the surname Foxx in admiration of the baseball star Jimmie Foxx ...

Article

theatrical artist, tap and cakewalk dancer, and comedian, was born in St. Charles, Missouri (names and occupations of his parents are unknown). Johnson first appeared on stage in 1889 during an amateur performance at Brown's Theatre in Minneapolis. In St. Louis, Missouri, he joined Sam T. Jack's The Creole Show, where he met his wife and partner, Dora Dean (maiden name Babbige; 1872–1949). After the couple had learned their routines, they left the show for vaudeville bookings and were an almost immediate success; in 1893 they were married and their son, Herman, was born in 1899 (up to 1914 he traveled with his parents on the same passport). Johnson and Dean claimed to have introduced the cakewalk on Broadway (Indianapolis Freeman, 23 April 1910 p 6 Known as Johnson Dean King Queen of Colored Aristocracy the couple were one of the ...

Article

David Bradford

singer, dancer, comedian, and songwriter, was born Samuel Milady in Washington Court House, Ohio. Nothing is known of his parents except, according to some sources, that they were ex-slaves. Known as the “dean of the Negro stage,” Lucas was a multifaceted entertainer who was featured in many of the leading minstrel companies and musical plays of his age including Callender's Original Georgia Minstrels, The Hyers Sisters' Out of Bondage, Sam T. Jack's The Creole Show, and Cole and Johnson's A Trip to Coontown. He also was the first black actor to play the title role in a major stage production of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the first African American to have a leading role in a motion picture.

When he was nineteen Lucas moved to Cincinnati where he worked as a barber He sang and played the guitar and soon began ...

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Ellis Nassour

comedian, was born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, North Carolina, the daughter of Jim Aiken, a businessman and grocer. Her mother's name is not known. Details of her early life are sketchy at best, but she maintained in interviews she had black, Irish, and Cherokee ancestry. Her birth date is often given as sometime in 1897. Her grandmother, a former slave, advised her at age thirteen “to leave home if I wanted to make something of myself.” However, she may have been unhappy over an arranged marriage with an older man. Mabley stated in a 4 October 1974Washington Post interview I did get engaged two or three times but they always wanted a free sample Her formative years were spent in the Anacostia section of Washington D C and in Cleveland Ohio where she later maintained a home She had a child out of wedlock ...

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Damon L. Fordham

comedian and actor, was born in Durham, North Carolina, to unknown parents. As a comedian, his career spanned the eras of minstrel shows, vaudeville, radio, motion pictures, and television.

As a young man Markham began performing in tent shows and minstrel shows. By 1917 he was gaining attention as a comedian on the Chitlin' Circuit, the nickname for the network of theaters and nightclubs in African American neighborhoods, with such performers as Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. The origin of his famous nickname is uncertain, although the phrase “Pigmeat” was commonly used as a sexual metaphor in blues songs of the early 1900s. It is known that he was performing under the name Pigmeat by the 1920s.

According to the music historian Bill Dahl, Markham originated his most famous character, Judge Pigmeat during the late 1920s while performing at the Alhambra Theater in Harlem This ...

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Sibyl Collins Wilson

actor and comedian, was born in Monroe, Louisiana. Little is known of his childhood, however, one enduring aspect is the appropriate nickname his friends gave him, “google eyes.” Sometime in his early teens, Moreland ran away from home to join a circus or medicine show traveling with the performers. Because of his age, he was detained by juvenile agents who brought him back to his family. This did not deter him from becoming a performer in traveling, all-black troupes called the “chitlin' circuit.” In his late twenties, he began performing on Broadway, touring Europe, and doing vaudeville in different shows and revues. He also began appearing in movies focused on and created for African Americans, otherwise known as “race movies,” which were low budget productions, until his talent was recognized and he received roles in bigger films.

Some of the most prominent of Moreland s physical characteristics were his bulging ...

Article

Sibyl Collins Wilson

comedian and actress, was born Alberta Peal in Cleveland, Ohio; however, she referred to St. Louis, Missouri, as her home. There is little public information available about Page's early life, except that at the tender age of fifteen she began a professional dance career as a chorus girl and stripper in local venues. Known as “The Bronze Goddess of Fire” she focused on her ability to light cigarettes with her fingers, swallow fire, and touch torches to various places on her body. At the age of seventeen, she gave birth to a daughter, Clara, who later became an Evangelist, and also survived her in death.

In the early 1940s Page became a stand up comic a career move that acted as the springboard for her future fame She signed with Laff Records an independent record label dedicated to adult comedy recordings and produced several live comedy albums in the ...

Article

Pamala S. Deane

actress, singer, and comedian, was born in Louisville, Kentucky. Many sources confuse Amanda Randolph with her sister Lillian Randolph, also an entertainer but ten years her junior. In radio and onstage they stood in for each other, which makes a precise accounting of her career as a performer nearly impossible.

Randolph's father was a Methodist minister and the family moved frequently. After his death in 1920, Randolph settled in New York and began a career as a performer in the Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake productions of Shuffle Along (1921) and The Chocolate Dandies (1924). From 1925 to about 1927 Randolph performed at the Alhambra Theatre in New York City, in the All-Colored Musical Burlesque vaudeville review called Lucky Sambo. She then spent a year in London with the Harry Clifford Scott and Eddie Peter Whaley variety act A ...

Article

Charles Rosenberg

comedian and vaudeville musician, who developed most of his career in Australia, was born in Quincy, Illinois, the son of Josephus Sayles and Melinda Wilson Sayles. He was probably born in 1862, based in the 1880 census, although other dates given include 1866 and 1872. His origins are known primarily from his death certificate filed in Christchurch, New Zealand, but the 1870 and 1880 censuses list him among the children of the widowed Melinda Sayles in Quincy. It appears that Josephus Sayles died between 1868 and 1870.

Both of Sayles's parents escaped from slavery in Missouri between 1855 and 1860 His mother and oldest sister Melvina were both born in Virginia apparently taken or sold to Missouri Older sisters Mariah and Amanda and younger brothers Dallas and Josephus were recorded by the census as born in Missouri but most of them were more likely ...

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Barry Kernfeld

jazz violinist, singer, and comedian, was born Leroy Gordon Smith in Portsmouth, Ohio, the son of Cornelius T. Smith, a barber and musician, and Anna Lee Redman, a schoolteacher. Smith's birth certificate gives 13 August, but he celebrated his birthday on 14 August, for reasons unknown (though perhaps superstition); he also was known to many as Hezekiah (or by the nickname Hez), but this name is not on the certificate.

Smith was raised in Massilon, Ohio, from age nine, at which point he was playing in his father's band. His father wanted him to follow his sister Helen, who studied classical violin at Oberlin Conservatory, but Smith heard Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang perform locally and was smitten by jazz. Around 1925 he won a musical scholarship to Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte North Carolina but he never graduated ...

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Ulrich Adelt

singer, disc jockey, comedian, and dancer, was born in Cayce, Mississippi, to Rufus Thomas Sr., a sharecropper, and his wife Rachel. At age two Thomas came to Memphis with his parents and four older siblings. He proved his talents as a performer early on, appearing as a frog in a school play at age six and as a tap dancer in theater productions at Booker T. Washington High School. In tenth grade, he performed in blackface at his first minstrel show, the Brown Brevities. After one semester at Tennessee A&I University, Thomas decided to become a professional entertainer. He participated in a number of traveling entertainment troupes in the 1930s, including the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, the Georgia Dixon Traveling Show, and the Royal American Tent Shows.

In November 1940 Thomas married his high-school sweetheart, Cornelius Lorene Wilson Their three children would become ...

Article

Elliott S. Hurwitt

dancer and comedian, was born in Prescott, Arkansas, the son of George Thompson, whose father, Aaron Thompson, was a local white doctor. Thompson's mother, Hannah Pandora Driver, was six years older than his father and came from a large family that “populated that whole community,” as Thompson would later recall (Helen Armstead-Johnson Collection). The four Driver brothers, including Thompson's maternal grandfather, owned their farms. Several of the Driver girls became schoolteachers in the area, and a Driver cousin of Thompson's was nominated for a bishopric in the 1960s.

Although his family was upwardly mobile Thompson himself had only a rudimentary education men in the family were expected to work as farmers and laborers When Thompson was seven years of age his mother died after this tragic loss life at home was not pleasant for Thompson His father remarried repeatedly and Thompson had numerous half brothers and ...

Article

Donny Levit

comedian and actor, was born Melvin White in Baltimore, Maryland. Little is known of his early childhood except that he grew up in impoverished circumstances and often danced on the streets for small change. At age fourteen White briefly performed with a circus touring through Baltimore. Although he did not have any formal performance training, his strong dancing and physical abilities attracted many of his first comedic collaborators.

In the late 1930s White began to frequent and occasionally perform in nightclubs. Although he later was known for his verbal comedy, he began his career as a physical comedian. In the late 1940s he toured and performed as a comedic partner with the pantomimist Willie Washington. Washington and White performed as the Two Zephyrs and were known for their baggy clothing, clowning, and slapstick routines. Their trademark props included a pair of dice and two menacing razors, what Darryl Littleton ...