George Burns

George Burns (Naftaly — later Nathan — Birnbaum) was born in New York City on this date in 1896 to a family that had immigrated from what is now southeastern Poland. He quit school in the fourth grade to become an entertainer. Burns’ vaudeville career was floundering until he met Gracie Allen in 1923 (they would […]

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It’s a Wonderful Life

Lyricist, screenwriter, and playwright Jo Swerling, who wrote or co-authored dozens of Hollywood screenplays in the 1930s and ’40s, including It’s a Wonderful Life, Lifeboat, Pennies from Heaven, Platinum Blonde, and The Pride of the Yankees, was born in Berdichev, Ukraine on this date in 1897. He grew up on New York’s Lower East Side […]

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Tales in a Jugular Vein

Crime, horror and science fiction writer Robert Bloch, who wrote the novel Psycho, which Alfred Hitchcock adapted into his groundbreaking film, was born in Chicago on this date in 1917. In the course of his prolific career, Bloch won the Hugo Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the Edgar Allen Poe Award, the Fritz Lieber Fantasy […]

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October 10: Eddie Cantor

Eddie Cantor (Iskowitz), one of America’s first radio stars and wildly popular, cross-platform entertainers, died at 72 on this date in 1964. Known as “Banjo Eyes” and “The Apostle of Pep,” Cantor mixed intimate stories about his wife and five daughters with high-energy dancing, vaudeville songs, jokes, and sentimental sincerity to charm his audiences on […]

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August 27: The Ritz Brothers

Al Ritz (Joachim), the eldest of the precision-dancing trio, the Ritz Brothers, was born in Newark, New Jersey on this date in 1901. Ritz became a vaudevillian before recruiting his brothers, Jimmy (Samuel) and Harry, after their graduation from high school. Their trio act played with tap dance, lampoons of popular songs and stories, ethnic […]

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May 15: The Yiddish Fred Astaire

Actor and dancer Leo Fuchs, lifelong star of the Yiddish theater, creator of the famous song “Trouble,” and a star in the original Broadway production of Cabaret, was born to a theatrical family in Warsaw on this date in 1911. “Fuchs’s specialty,” writes Bernard Mendelovitch in The Independent, “was comedy and when he commenced his […]

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March 16: Jerry Lewis

Funny man Jerry Lewis (Levitch) was born in Newark, New Jersey on this date in 1926, to a vaudevillian father and a piano-playing mother. After on-stage training on the Borscht Belt (with his parents from the age of 5), he teamed up with Dean Martin in 1946, and within a year they were playing the […]

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October 12: The Strongest Man in the World

Zishe Breitbart, a circus performer billed as “The Strongest Man in the World,” died at 32 from blood poisoning due to an infection incurred during his act on this date in 1925. Breitbart grew up in a blacksmith family in Poland and developed performances linked to the trade: bending iron bars, biting through iron chains, […]

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February 19: The Perfect Fool

Vaudevillian and radio and television entertainer Ed Wynn (Isaiah Edwin Leopold) died at 79 in Beverly Hills on this date in 1966. He ran away from home in his teens and changed his name to spare his parents the embarrassment of having a vaudevillian son. Wynn starred in the Ziegfield Follies beginning in 1914, and […]

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December 4: The Cowardly Lion

Vaudevillian and Broadway actor Bert Lahr, who wore a costume made of actual lion fur to play the Cowardly Lion across from Judy Garland in MGM’s 1939 classic version of The Wizard of Oz, died at 72 on this date in 1967. Lahr dropped out of the New York school system at 15 to join […]

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