Also known as

Cecil Calvert Taliaferro

Many of the vernacular photos I’ve bought in the last few months have no information about the sitter – sometimes the subject is identified by a nickname, such as “Stinky.” I recently bought an intriguing image of a man (apparently) dancing, and I was delighted to find his full name and date of birth on the reverse: Cecil Calvert Taliaferro, born 24 January 1922.

A glance at Ancestry.com for Cecil suggested a complex identity: he appears in the Social Security Applications and Claims Index as Cecil Calvert Taliaferro (born 24 January 1923), also known as Chet Tolliver, also known as Chet Toliver. It is as Cecil Taliaferro that he is buried at Melvin Cemetery in Melvin, McCulloch County, Texas, but Ancestry links Cecil and Chet at the Social Security Death Index. It looks like his address at death (on 23 October 1997) was in New York City; his Social Security number was created in Illinois before 1951. The U.S. Public Records Index, 1950–1993, lists him in 1976 as a resident at 409 West Forty-eighth Street in Manhattan.

On 6 April 1940, Cecil Taliaferro was living on Pecan Street in Melvin with his parents Montie and Medina Taliaferro, both 49, and his sister Mary Lucile, 15. Cecil was working in a public school, and his father was a ranch hand.[1] Later that year Cecil enlisted as a private at Fort Sam Houston, destined for the Philippine Department; he was single, and without dependents, with four years of high school and a proficiency in “bakery products,” and he is described as being 68 inches tall and weighing 130 pounds.[2]

A 1959 theater program suggests what happened next. Within a decade of the end of World War II, Chet Toliver/Tolliver was an established performer and choreographer, having worked in television and onstage; his choreographer’s credit for Wright Side Up – a production of the University of Pennsylvania’s Mask and Wig Club – detailed work with Mary Martin and with Dagmar in night club shows. Tolliver had been a professional choreographer since 1952, and the Wright Side Up program notes that “His spirit has molded the [Mask and Wig] dancing chorus into a vivacious, precise and exciting element of this year’s show.”[3]

By 1959, Chet Toliver was also one of the three mainstays of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus productions: according to Billboard, Tony Velona had directed, Margaret Smith had staged, and Chet Toliver had choreographed the Ringling–Barnum Circus since 1957.[4] A history of the Circus suggests a certain staffing instability: “The Barstows and Miles White were gone again [during the season of 1958], and Margaret Smith was promoted to ‘stager,’ along with one of [circus president John Ringling] North’s buddies, Tony Velona, from outside the circus. Production numbers, costumes, and floats were credited to the indestructible Max Weldy. Chet Toliver was the choreographer, and Harold Ronk, out in ’56, was back in ’57 and out again in ’58.”[5]

With the confirmation of the Tolliver photos in the Wright Side Up program, I feel confident that this photo shows Chet Tolliver as well as Cecil Calvert Taliaferro. Yet in spite of a prolific career and a reasonably high public profile during the 1950s, Taliaferro/Tolliver remains a bit of a cipher. I wonder where to go next for more information on his biography!

Notes

[1] 1940 Federal Census, T627_4098, for Melvin, Texas, p. 5A, E.D. 154–6.

[2] U.S. World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938–1946 [database on-line].

[3] See pp. 21 and 27 for photos of Chet Tolliver, a doppelganger for Cecil Calvert Taliaferro.

[4] Billboard, 28 September 1959, 53.

[5] Ernest Albrecht, From Barnum & Bailey to Feld: The Creative Evolution of the Greatest Show on Earth (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014), 172.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

8 thoughts on “Also known as

  1. Scott, back in the 1960’s when I was a student at U/MD in College Park, MD, one of my Spanish teachers told us the story of one of the buildings.
    Taliaferro Hall was pronounced ‘Tolliver’ named after a former teacher. Calvert is also an old Maryland family name.
    Karen Rich

  2. My ggrandmother’s maiden name was Taliaferro, ( probably from Italy )and I have been unable to find much about her, anyplace. I do know that there was a Taliaferro who was a slave owner, and is connected to Booker T. Washington ( the T being – you guessed it- Taliaferro. There is lots of room for speculation and search in all of that!

  3. The University of Pennsylvania Archives. Maybe the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Library Company of Philadelphia…

  4. This reminds me that we can all help others when we find a document, certificate, photo, etc. By looking at public trees in ancestry.com there are several families researching Cecil. I’m sure they would enjoy the photo and it would put it in the public domain for future family genealogists.

    On a personal note, I did this with a Certificate of Marriage I saw hanging at an Inn in Denver (in the bathroom no less) for a couple married in Neversink, NY. I contacted the owner of the public tree and was able to get a photo of the Certificate to him. Although he seemed to be the only one with the couple in the tree and very distantly related, it will allow the certificate to be available for future researchers.

  5. Try this:

    New York Public Library
    The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts,
    The Billy Rose Theatre Collection
    Shelving control number: 8MWEZ/17995-17998
    RLG Union Catalog Record ID: NYPW92-A237

    I found material on the spouse of one of my cousins.

    There are also show-biz archives that are not open to the public without fees, but this is a place to start.

  6. If Cecil happened to be in the Philippines in 1941 — you mentioned he enlisted in “the Philippine Department” in 1940 — he may have been taken prisoner by the Japanese when they attacked in December 1941 and was sent to a prison camp there for the duration of World War II. I knew an American couple who were working in Manila before the war. They and their two small children spent 4+ years under horrible circumstances. You might check POW records.

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