SOME FAMOUS NEBRASKA ENTERTAINERS

This document contains information on the following entertainers: Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando, Johnny Carson, Buffalo Bill Cody, Henry Fonda, Swoosie Kurtz, Robert Taylor, and Darryl Zanuck.


Fred Astaire (1899-1987) Omaha

Fred Astaire was born Frederick Austerlitz on May 10, 1899 to a Storz beer salesman in Omaha, Nebraska. As a boy, Astaire enrolled by his mother in dancing school. She took him, with his older sister Adele, to New York for professional training in 1906. They left behind their father, and life in Nebraska, to embark upon a career in vaudeville under the new name of Astaire.

In 1917, the two appeared in "Over The Top," and for the next 15 years starred in New York and London. Adele retired from the stage in 1931 to marry Lord Charles Cavendish, son of the Duke of Devonshire. Fred returned to the stage briefly before reluctantly trying his luck in Hollywood.

A Paramount executive who viewed Astaire's 1930 screen test dismissed him but another studio signed him and loaned him to MGM for his debut with Joan Crawford in the 1933 "Dancing Lady."

Astaire's debonair style dominated the Hollywood musical genre. His most well-known partner was Ginger Rogers. Rogers teamed up with Astaire in 1933 and they performed 10 musical hits together. The pair captivated depression era audiences, and the magic continued with succeeding partners, including Cyd Charisse, Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland and Audrey Hepburn.

In 1948, the Motion Picture Academy presented him with an honorary Oscar for his "unique artistry and his contributions to the techniques of musical pictures." In 1978, he was among the first recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement. In 1981, The American Film Institute presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award on national television. Astaire also won nine Emmys for a series of TV specials in the 50's and 60's.

Astaire's first wife, New York socialite Phyllis Baker Potter, died of cancer in 1954 after 21 years of marriage and two children Fred Jr., born in 1936, and Ava, born in 1942. The family also included Peter Hoffer, Mrs. Astaire's son from a previous marriage. Astaire remarried in 1980. Astaire remained physically active long into his 80's. He broke his arm at 80 showing off on a skateboard for his grandchildren.

Astaire died of pneumonia June 22, 1987 at 88 years of age.


Marlon Brando (1924- ) Omaha

Marlon Brando was born in Omaha, Nebraska on April 3, 1924. His mother was involved in the Omaha Community Playhouse. A nonconformist even in youth, he withdrew from a Midwestern military academy a few weeks before graduation and went to New York City to study acting. The Actors Studio and its famous "method" were the main forces that formed his naturalistic acting style. After appearing briefly in summer stock, he made his Broadway debut in "I Remember Mama" (1944). He appeared subsequently on Broadway in 1946 in Shaw's "Candida," opposite Katharine Cornell, then leaped to fame in 1947 in "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Brando's first film was "The Men" (1950). He repeated his celebrated role in the film version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1952) and won the Academy Award for best actor in 1954 for his performance in "On The Waterfront." In 1962 he starred in a remake of "Mutiny on the Bounty." He received another Academy Award for his title role in "The Godfather" (1972).


Johnny Carson (1925- ) Norfolk

John William Carson was born October 23, 1925 in Corning, Iowa. His father, Homer R. "Kit" Carson moved his wife, Ruth, sons Johnny, Dick, and sister Catherine, a number of times - to Shenandoah, Clarinda, and Avoca, Iowa.

In 1933, when Johnny was 8, the family settled in Norfolk, Nebraska. There Johnny spent his time hiking, and perfecting his magic skills. With the rest of the family, Johnny spent many evenings around the radio listening to the great comedians of the day - Jack Benny, Red Skelton, and Fred Allen, men who Johnny later would say influenced his comedy.

Between his graduation from Norfolk High School in 1943 and his enlistment in the U.S. Navy that fall, he went to California. There, as a 17-year-old, he was hired by Orson Welles as an assistant in a magic show. After his discharge from the Navy in 1945, Carson enrolled at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. He studied speech and radio and worked part-time for KFAB, a radio station then based in Lincoln.

After graduating with a bachelor of arts degree, Carson headed to Omaha to a job at WOW radio as an announcer and disc jockey. In the afternoon Johnny would go to the WOW-TV studios to do his five day a week show, "The Squirrel's Nest."

After leaving Omaha, Carson worked for a Hollywood station. He got his big break when on two hours notice he filled in for Red Skelton who had broken his arm. Johnny was soon given his own show, "Who Do You Trust."

Johnny Carson took over "The Tonight Show" October 1, 1962, several months after Jack Paar had swept off in a final operatic exit. Johnny Carson successfully carried "The Tonight Show" for 30 years until he gracefully bid his audience "A Fond Goodnight" in May of 1992.


William Frederick Cody (1846-1917) North Platte, Nebraska [Photograph]

William Frederick Cody, better known as " Bill", came to the Kansas/Nebraska Territory with his family at the age of eight.

While still very young, Buffalo Bill began his legendary career as a military scout in Kansas, later serving in the same capacity for the 5th Cavalry, at Fort McPherson, Nebraska.

As a buffalo hunter for the railroad, his proficiency for the job earned him his famous nickname. So legendary was his status as a buffalo hunter that, for a time, his only occupation was as a guide to wealthy Easterners and Europeans wishing to experience the thrill of a buffalo hunt on the wild western frontier.

In 1872, Bill led the hunting party of the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, observantly noting the Grand Duke's extreme pleasure with Bill's display of marksmanship and the horsemanship of the Indian members of the hunting party.

Buffalo Bill's legendary status is partly due to the popularity of dime novels based on his life and adventures (however exaggerated) written by Ned Buntline. It was through Mr. Buntline's influence that Bill traveled to New York to star in a Wild West stage production. Soon after, Bill formed his own drama company and produced Wild West shows for the New York stage. These stage productions were the precursor to his more elaborate Wild West Shows.

In 1883, nearly ten years after his introduction to the New York stage, Bill produced his first full scale Wild West Show before an audience of 8,000 in Omaha. The shows, entitled "Wild West, Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition," were a huge success; the first truly successful entertainment of this type, and tours in the United States and Europe soon followed, lasting from 1883 to 1913.

Buffalo Bill's ranch in North Platte, Nebraska, is still in operation today and more about this remarkable American showman can be learned with a visit there.


Henry Fonda (1905-1982) Omaha

Henry Fonda made his first appearance in 1905 in Grand Island, Nebraska. His father, William Brace Fonda, proprietor of a printing plant, moved his wife, his son and his presses to Omaha within six months of Henry's birth. After the birth of her son, Herberta Fonda bore two daughters, Harriet and Jayne.

Henry was healthy throughout the better part of his childhood, but was extremely short. Fonda was a shy boy, eager to please, devoted to his mother and sisters, and in constant awe and admiration of his father. In his senior year of high school Henry Fonda began to grow. In less than 12 months he shot up from being a runt to 6'1". After graduation from Central High School, Henry chose the University of Minnesota. After two years he flunked out.

Marlon Brando was still a baby when his mother coaxed 20-year-old Henry Fonda into trying out for the Community Playhouse. The 1925 season was about to start and the company needed a juvenile actor. Fonda read for the part and got it. He was too painfully shy to say he didn't want to do it or didn't know how to do it. He tucked the book under his arm and headed home to memorize his part.

Henry Fonda didn't receive rave reviews on his opening night, but he was smitten with the magic of the theater.

Fonda subsequently appeared in more than 80 films. In 1978 he received the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. He won the 1982 Academy Award as best actor for "On Golden Pond" (1981).


Swoosie Kurtz (1944- ) Omaha

Swoosie Kurtz was nicknamed Swoosie at birth, but the name stuck when a hospital nurse mistakenly logged in on her official birth certificate. She's spent most of her life explaining its origin, and being the daughter of a much traveled serviceman, she's had to do that all over the world. Swoosie was the name of her father's World War II Air Force plane, but it originally comes from the lyrics of a Kay Kayser song of that era that depicted a hybrid that was "half swan, half goose---a swoose."

The red-haired, blue-eyed woman with the unusual name and unusually successful career, had an equally unusual childhood. She is the only child of a decorated American fighter pilot who was also a two-time U.S. Olympic Team diver.

Although she was born in Omaha, Nebraska, Swoosie attended 17 different schools before settling in at Hollywood High in Los Angeles. She undertook drama studies at the University of Southern California and then went to England for two years at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Afterwards she returned to New York and made a concerted effort to break into the theater scene there.

The incredibly talented actress has performed successfully on stage, in movies and on TV.


Robert Taylor (1911-1969) Beatrice

Robert Taylor, born Spangler Arlington Brugh on August 5, 1911 in Filley, Nebraska attended kindergarden in Fremont, but grew up in Beatrice, where he was a musician, taking private cello lessons at the University School of Music in Lincoln. He rode a pony, learned to dance, and considered actor Tom Mix an idol. As a senior at Beatrice High, he was state oratorical champion.

A shy, gentle, private, and meticulously groomed person with handsomeness and a widow's peak, he attended Doane College from 1929 to 1931, and for two summers performed as part of a trio at KMMJ at Clay Center. Nicknamed "Doc", young Arlington considered medicine as a career, but majored in music and took drama classes.

He earned his bachelor's degree in business, at Pomona College in Claremont, California and in his senior year was discovered by a talent scout for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Taylor appeared in 80 motion picture and television films from 1934 to 1969, the vast majority with MGM, and ranked as a top box office attraction for three decades during Hollywood's Golden Era. He played romantic roles opposite such leading ladies as Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, and Vivien Leigh.

In 1954, he was named most popular star abroad by the Hollywood Foreign Press Correspondents Association representing 500 million moviegoers worldwide.

Magill's 1983 film guide rated seven of his films among the 1,000 best movies: "Magnificent Obsession" (1935), "Camille" (1937), "Three Comrades" (1938), "Waterloo Bridge" (1940), "Johnny Eager" (1942), "Quo Vadis" (1951), and "Ivanhoe" (1952).

First married to actress Barbara Stanwyck from 1939 to 1951, Taylor remarried in 1954 to German-born actress Ursula Schmidt Thiess, a June 4, 1951 Life magazine cover girl. From his second marriage came two children: son Terence and daughter Tessa.

He died of lung cancer on June 8, 1969. His close friend Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, delivered the eulogy at his funeral.


Darryl Zanuck (1902-1979) Wahoo

Darryl Zanuck was born in Wahoo, Nebraska in 1902. In spite of his extreme youth, he joined the Army and headed to France to fight in World War I. After the war, he began to write, edit, and finally produce for Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.. He was made chief executive in charge of production in 1931.

In 1933, with Joseph M. Schenck, he organized Twentieth Century Pictures, which two years later merged with Fox as the Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation with Zanuck as vice president in charge of production.

Zanuck served in the Army again early in World War II, making training and documentary films, and in 1943 returned to his company. In 1956 he became an independent producer, releasing his films through Twentieth Century-Fox, and in 1962 he was elected president of the company.

Recognized as one of Hollywood's most brilliant producers, he developed many new star performers and pioneered in the use of CinemaScope.



For further information:

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800-228-4307 Ext. 754
Web Site: http://www.ded.state.ne.us/tourism.html
E-Mail: tourism@ded2.ded.state.ne.us

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This file was last updated on 11/3/97.