The Debuts and Early Performances of 20 Future Stars

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website or at Facebook.

 The most famous show business performers in history are no different than the unknowns, the obscures and the lesser knowns. Every performer has one thing in common- they all made their debut somewhere or other, whether auspicious or less so. Like they say, everyone has to start some place. Let's take a look at the show biz debuts and earliest performances of twenty stars.

1. Groucho Marx   

Groucho (pictured at right) had an early gig singing in a protestant church choir. This worked out well until they found out he was Jewish and fired him.

2. Harpo Marx

Groucho's older brother Harpo (on the left) made his debut at Coney Island at the age of 19. He was hijacked from his safe job as a piano player in a nickelodeon movie theater and tossed on stage to accompany his brothers, Groucho and Gummo (and another  singer named Lou Levy), as one of the Four Nightingales. Harpo was so scared he wet his pants. Harpo called it "the most wretched debut in the history off show business."

3. Sylvester Stallone

Sly got his first acting gig playing Smokey the Bear in a school play.

4. Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley's first-ever performance as a singer was in a singing contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair & Dairy Show. He was ten years old at the time. Dressed as a cowboy and wearing glasses, Elvis stood on a chair to reach the microphone. He sang Red Foley's "Old Shep" and won fifth prize in the contest. His prize was $5.00 plus a free ticket to all the rides at the fair.

5. Orson Welles

Orson's earliest public performance happened before he was ten years old. He appeared dressed as Peter Rabbit in the store window of Marshall Fields department store in Chicago. He was paid $25 a day.

6. Sammy Davis Jr.

(YouTube link)

Billed as "Silent Sammy- the Dancing Midget," Sammy was five when he started out in vaudeville. Always a huge talent, Sammy was already singing and dancing onstage like an old pro, but he often appeared in towns and states with strict child labor laws. To combat this, Sammy would walk around conspicuously backstage with a rubber cigar in his mouth and a woman on each arm.

7. Lou Costello

Before finding fame as Bud Abbott's partner, Lou was a movie stunt man and stand-in. He stood in for Actress Dolores del Rio in the 1928 movie The Trail of '98

8. Shirley MacLaine

The future Oscar winner's earliest public performances were at her ballet school, in productions such as Romeo and Juliet and SleepingBeauty. Just one caveat: Shirley was always forced to take the male role in all her shows. Why? Because she was always the tallest one in her class. That, plus the lack of males taking ballet.

The tables were turned in 1977 when MacLaine performed with the all-male troupe Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

9. Al Pacino

Al made his debut playing the Cowardly Lion at the age of 10 in a school production of The Wizard of Oz.

10. James Dean

(YouTube link)

The later screen immortal's first job in television was in a Pepsi commercial.     

11. Jackie Gleason

Jackie's first-ever performance was as the lead in the school play Little Red Riding Hood. He played his role in an unique way. He recited his lines in Yiddish.

12. Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin's mother was a stage performer in the English music halls. One night, at an evening performance her voice gave out on her and she had to leave the stage in embarrassment. But her boy, little Charlie, then five, walked out on stage and took over her slot. Charlie sang the song "Jack Jones." Much to the delight of the crowd, Charlie, in a childish way, mimicked the croaking voice of his mother. The audience loved little Charlie so much they threw coins on stage to him. Charlie halted his performance and informed the crowd he had to stop and pick up their contributions.

13. John Lennon

John Lennon was actually a stage actor in his college days. Well, just once. In a holiday class production of Cinderella at the Liverpool College of Art. In a show that must have been hilarious, John played one of the ugly stepsisters. (One wonders how much a film of this would fetch on eBay by a Beatles collector.)

14. Paul McCartney

Another future Beatle, Paul McCartney, was a thespian once in his school days, too. In the play Saint Joan, Paul played a monk. Alas, unlike fellow Beatle John, Paul had no lines.

15. Mickey Rooney

When Mickey Rooney (then Joseph Yule Jr.) was born, his parents were appearing in the Brooklyn-based production of The Gaity Girl. Mickey joined the production at the age of 17 months. As part of his parents' routine, he wore a specially tailored tuxedo.

16. Jimi Hendrix

Jimi's first gig as a musician was with an unnamed band in the basement of a synagogue, Seattle's Temple de Hirsch. The band fired him between sets for "too much showing off."  

17. Buster Keaton

Buster started out in vaudeville at the age of four, as part of an act with his parents, The Three Keatons. Billed as "the human mop" in the knockabout act, little Buster was tossed around the stage, hit with brooms, belted, pelted and knocked all over the stage. Even as a child, Buster displayed the same incredible ability to take falls and withstand harsh contact with any inanimate object without being effected.

Once, in a rowdy college town, the three Keatons were being unmercifully heckled by a local leather-lunged loudmouth. Without hesitating, Joe Keaton, Buster's dad, picked up little Buster and flung him out at the verbal assailant. No further heckling occurred that evening.

18. Henry Winkler

The later-to-be "Fonzie" made his first public performance in kindergarten in a hygiene play. Henry played Toby the Toothpaste Tube. 

19. Phil Collins

Phil actually procured a great gig for himself at the age of 12. He was to be an extra in the crowd of screaming Beatlemaniacs in the final concert scene in the Beatles first movie A Hard Day's Night.

(YouTube link)

Phil was right there, watching the Beatles raptly, as they went through their concert motions for the cameras. But alas, poor Phil's scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

20. Jeff Bridges

Okay, here's your bar bet question of the day. What Oscar winner made their movie debut at the youngest age? Give up? Oscar-winning actor Jeff bridges had an un-credited role as "infant at train station" at the tender age of one in the 1951 Elizabeth Scott-Dennis O'Keefe movie The Company She Keeps.                     

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Cowardly Lion: "The Wizard is going to give each of us what we want."
Scarecrow: "How can you be so sure?"
Cowardly Lion: "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."
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