1. Scout local talent.
Performers paid their dues before hitting it big, so start locally to learn about your ancestors’ talents. Scour high school and college yearbooks for their pictures and activities they participated in. In Duquesne High School’s 1951 yearbook, for example, I discovered my uncle Nick was in the drama club — he’s even in the group photo. Check the senior class highlights, too: The same annual profiled a student named Louie as “tall, dark, and handsome … outstanding voice, which he used in the Mixed Octette … plays violin well.”
Also look for playbills, ticket stubs and other memorabilia tucked into yearbook pages — they may tip you off to a relative’s talents. While cleaning out my parents’ closets, I found an old Syria Temple Shrine Circus program from a performance in Pittsburgh. It detailed the acts, had photos of the performers and listed sponsors.
Other local sources might hint at an ancestor’s theatrical or musical endeavors: Town and local histories often spotlight residents” accomplishments. City directories — the precursors to modern telephone books — list people’s occupations; they also contain advertisements, which you can scan for local theaters and other venues.
Search Google <google.com> to identify libraries, museums and historical societies in your ancestor’s area, which serve as storehouses for all of these sources. You’l find some city directories online at Ancestry.com <Ancestry.com > ($155.40 a year) and Footnote <footnote.com> ($59.95 a year). For yearbooks and memorabilia, check flea markets, antiques shops, estate sales and eBay <www.ebay.com>.
And don’t overlook family members. A friend of mine obtained a copy of a decades-old letter to his mother’s oldest sister, which describes the musical career of his ancestor Karl Haney: “He taught himself piano. He had perfect pitch and such a feeling for music. It had to be born in him. Later he traveled with a circus band one or two seasons, theater work and played with all the big bands, Sousa, New York Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony … He also played in the Homestead and Braddock Library Bands when I was very young.” The letter continues with telling details — including names and places — my friend could use to uncover even more information about his ancestor.
2. Become an understudy.
Learning about old-time entertainment puts your ancestor’s role in context and focuses your research by providing additional leads. American Variety Stage <memory.loc.gov/ammem/vshtml/vshome.html>, part of the Library of Congress’ American Memory Web site, is a treasure trove for vaudeville history: You’l find information about performers and theaters, sample playbills, sound recordings and other goodies. American Memory has several more entertainment-themed collections, including The New Deal Stage: Selections From the Federal Theatre Project <memory.loc.gov/ammem/fedtp/fthome.html>.
For your Broadway-bound relatives, check the Internet Broadway Database <www.ibdb.com>, the official online archive of the “Great White Way.” If your ancestor had an unusual skill, you might find a Web site devoted to it (such as <www.swordswallow.com>) using Google or another search engine.
Some cultural groups had rich theatrical or musical traditions — for example, 200 traveling Yiddish theater companies were performing around the country between 1890 and 1940. Type the group plus keywords (such as yiddish vaudevilleor african-american theater) into the WorldCat metacatalog <worldcat.org> to identify ethnic-focused social histories and locate them in nearby libraries.
You’l also want to chronicle your performer relative’s legacy in pictures. Besides American Memory, search DeadFred <www.deadfred.com> and Ancient Faces <www.ancientfaces.com> for photos of historic Hollywood and vaudeville. Old Postcards’ <www.old-postcards.com> collection of more than 50,000 vintage cards includes images of historic theaters and performance venues; eBay is a great source for posters and other memorabilia.
You might even be able to track down a photograph of your ancestor or his troupe on the Web — for instance, the University of Washington Library has a collection of 19th-Century Actors Photographs <content.lib.washington.edu/19thcenturyactorsweb>. Try a Google search on terms such as historical actor photographs and vaudeville photos.
The University of Iowa Libraries’ special collections department has a terrific resource on East Coast vaudeville: the Keith/Albee Collection <www.lib.uiowa.edu/spec-coll/Msc/ToMsc400/MsC356/msc356.html>. Covering 1894 to 1935, it chronicles the expansion of the circuit, changes in leadership and vaudeville’s decline. Especially valuable to genealogists are the descriptions of both little-known performers and vaudeville stars. Because the collection contains fragile and oversized documents, the staff doesn’t fulfill research requests, however — you’d have to go there yourself or hire a local researcher.
Even familiar genealogy records Web sites are worth a try: Searching on show business at Footnote, I turned up a 1918 passport for circus performer Charles Sasse and a Lincoln Theater playbill.
3. Deconstruct stage names.
Celebrity pseudonyms aren’t a modern phenomenon — just as today’s actors often change their monikers to sound more “Hollywood” or mainstream, performers in olden days also adopted names as part of their on-stage personas. Hungarian-born magician Harry Houdini, for example, began life as Erich Weisz (later Ehrich Weiss). He took his stage name as an homage to a French magician he admired, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin.
But how’s a genealogist to tell that Maxmillian the Magnificent is actually her ancestor Michael Maxwell? Several Web sites catalog stage-name conversions: At ChangedNames <www.changednames.com>, you’d learn Judy Garland began life as Frances Ethel Gumm. Andrew Heenan’s Real Names of Famous Folk <www.famousfolk.com> is a more-exhaustive compilation that covers lesser-known notables, too. You’l find a list of vaudeville performers’ names at <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/category:vaudeville_performers>; dick any name to view a bio that reveals the person’s original name. SideshowWorld <sideshowworld.com> links to some performers’ bios, as well as historical sideshow Web sites.
You also can try searching court records for official name-change documents. But many performers adopted their stage names informally — so ultimately, you might have to settle for circumstantial evidence, by looking in other records that might reference the old and new monikers.
4. Read the credits.
Biographies are a great resource for tracking showbiz ancestors. Performers’ star status means they’re more likely than the average person to be profiled online or in a book. Start at sites such as Biography.com <www.biography.com>, which offers short bios of 25,000 famous folks, and Infoplease <www.infoplease.com>, with 30,000 entries. Search for famous females in Biographies of Notable Women <womenshistory.about.com/library/bio/blbio_list.htm>.
Next, look for entertainer biographies in book form. Performing Arts Biography Master Index edited by Barbara McNeil and Miranda C. Herbert (Gale) catalogs 270,000 biographical sketches from 100 different performer directories. George B. Bryan’s Stage Lives: A Bibliography and Index to Theatrical Biographies in English (Greenwood Press,) covers 4,000 artists. For more theater-related references, see <www.library.yale.edu/humanities/theater/bios.html>. Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, 2 volumes, by Frank Cullen (Routledge Press) contains 1,000 biographies.
Other vaudeville resources include The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville by Anthony Slide (Greenwood Publishing Group), No Applause — Just Throw Money by Trav SD (Faber & Faber) and Women Vaudeville Stars: Eighty Biographical Profiles by Armond Fields (McFarland & Co.). Use WorldCat to locate libraries that have the books you want? if they’re not available nearby, ask your reference librarian if you can borrow them through interlibrary loan.
Be sure to look in general biographical compilations, too, such as the Who’s Who series (in libraries) and the American Genealogical Biographical Index, at large libraries and online at Ancestry.com.
5. Screen the newspapers.
Entertainment news was a big part of yesterday’s media, too (minus the celebrity rags and paparazzi), making newspapers an obvious source for researching your showbiz ancestor. Look in the society pages for marriages and special appearances, as well as advertisements announcing upcoming performances.
I found one such gem while browsing microfilm of the McKeesport, Pa., Daily News. In the Sept. 13, 1941, edition was the headline “Charles Wakefield Cadman, Composer of Fame, Once resided in Duquesne.” This profile — complete with a photo — talks about the musician’s localties as a former resident, and tells his year and place of birth, his sister’s name, and schools he attended.
Showbiz ancestors are almost certain to show up in the obituary pages, which will likely recount their performance careers. Houdini’s Nov. 1, 1926, New York Times obituary <www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0324.html>, for example, tells of die magician’s joining the circus at age 9, regaling European audiences with his tricks and confounding President Theodore Roosevelt. You can use resources such as Online Searchable Death Indexes & Records <www.deathindexes.com> and Stage Deaths: A Biographical Guide to International Theatrical Obituaries, 1850-1990 compiled by George B. Bryan (Greenwood Press) to track down obits and death notices. (No burial info in the newspaper? Find A Grave’s <www.findagrave.com> and Interment.net’s <www.interment.net> user-submitted gravestone transcription databases could help you find your ancestor’s cemetery.)
Libraries often have historical newspapers on microfilm. Visit the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America directory <loc.gov/chroniclingamerica> to identify US newspapers published since 1690 and learn which libraries have them. You’ll find tips for searching microfilmed and unindexed newspapers in the February 2007 Family Tree Magazine.
Old newspapers are increasingly being digitized and posted online in searchable form, too. World Vital Records <www.worldvitalrecords.com> makes hundreds of titles available for free. Through libraries that subscribe to ProQuest Historical Newspapers, you can search happenings in entertainment hubs from the Big Apple to Hollywood: New York Times coverage goes back to 1851, the Los Angeles Times to 1881. Ancestry.com and GenealogyBank <www.genealogybank.com> ($89.95 annually) also have sizeable collections.
Search Google (try historical newspapers) or browse the links at Cyndi’s List <cyndislist.com/newspapr.htm> to turn up smaller-scale sites that may hold hidden gems. The Olden Times <theoldentimes.com>, for example, hosts a free collection of 18th-through early 20th-century newspapers, as well as data on frequent travelers. That includes hotel guest lists from the 1800s and early 1900s organized by state, plus links to information on books such as Opera on the Road: Traveling Opera Troupes in the United States, 1825-60 by Katherine Preston (University of Illinois Press).
6. Get a record revue.
If your usual research protocols don’t produce results, you can try writing to an archive or museum affiliated with your ancestor’s showbiz profession to see if it has any records that could help you (see the toolkit for suggestions). Keep your requests brief, and include details such as your ancestor’s name, age, the time frame for his career (or years he performed for that company) and special physical characteristics or talents (juggler, clown, trapeze artist). Consult the organization’s Web site for specifics. With some, such as the Circus Historical Society <www.circushistory.org> you pay a fee to become a member, which gets you access to newsletters or other information.
To save time — and learn the group’s guidelines for research requests — consider calling or e-mailing first. Remember: Employees or volunteers affiliated with these archives and museums aren’t there to be your dedicated research assistant, and they’re often inundated with requests. So be courteous and concise when asking for information. You’ll also need to be patient-your request may not be answered immediately. If you haven’t received a response within six to eight weeks, follow up with a phone call, e-mail or brief second request. Or if you’re able to travel to the museum or archive (and the organization allows it), consider making a visit for on-site research.