Six Famous Americans in the 1950s | U.S. Census Spotlight

Photo of Elvis Presley as a young man, smiling wide.

How much do you know about famous people from the 1950s? The much-anticipated release of the 1950 U.S. Census in April will reveal millions of exciting discoveries. In addition to finding the beloved stars in our own families, each of us will have the opportunity to look up our favorite famous celebrities of the era.

Your friends at FamilySearch are pleased to provide a glimpse at 6 of the influential men and women whose names should appear in the soon-to-be searchable index. Who are you hoping to see?

Six Famous People Alive During the 1950 Census

  • Ella Fitzgerald, 33 years old
  • Elvis Presley, 15 years old
  • Roberto Clemente, 15 years old
  • Chuck Cooper, 23 years old
  • Debbie Reynolds, 18 years old
  • Jimmy Stewart, 41 years old

(The ages listed are based on the Census Day, April 1, 1950.)

The 1950 U.S. census is now available! Click here to browse the record images.

As the 1950 community project is completed, the census will also become text-searchable. Visit the 1950 census page on FamilySearch for updates and to help review names.

Ella Fitzgerald—The Singer Who Went from Homeless to Household Name

Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, singers from the 1950s.

Ella Fitzgerald was more than a singer; she was a survivor. Born in 1917, Fitzgerald was asked to work early and often to contribute to her family’s humble income. As a young teenager and before the world would ever hear her sing, she worked for local gamblers running money between bettors. After a series of family tragedies, Fitzgerald was sent to a reform school where she experienced serious physical abuse. Unwilling to endure another day at the school, she escaped to the streets at just 15 years old.

Her life, and the music world, changed forever in 1934 on the day her name was selected at random in a weekly drawing at the Apollo Theater. Nervous and shy, Fitzgerald took the stage and wowed the audience with Hoagy Carmichael's "Judy" and the Boswell Sisters’ "The Object of My Affections." She would later say that she knew at that moment that she wanted to sing for the rest of her life.

After winning talent shows and experimenting with new sounds of bebop and scat singing, Fitzgerald recorded her own twist on the popular children's song "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." It was an instant hit, sold more than a million copies, and sent Fitzgerald into stardom. She would later be named “The First Lady of Song” and become the most successful female jazz artist in America.

Over her lengthy career, Fitzgerald won 13 Grammys and sold more than 40 million records. She also loved to collaborate and worked with every major name in the business, including Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra. Along the way, she overcame intense discrimination with grace and eventually earned fans of all ages, races, and religions. When her career came to a close, she’d recorded more than 200 albums and performed all around the world.

During her final years, Fitzgerald battled diabetes, and doctors amputated both legs below her knees. With her days of performing over, Fitzgerald said she was content to settle in her Beverly Hills home and spend time with her son and granddaughter, Alice. “I just want to smell the air, listen to the birds, and hear Alice laugh," she said. Fitzgerald died peacefully on June 15, 1996.

Elvis Presley—An Entertainment Icon Who Left Too Soon

Singer Elvis Presley promoting the film, 'Jailhouse Rock'.

Elvis Presley couldn’t have possibly imagined his life’s historic ride. From a humble childhood, Presley would become more than just one of our most popular singers, but one of the most famous people on the planet. He was raised by hard-working, God-fearing parents who moved often but provided the best they could. Religion was also important to the Presley family, and they were regulars at the Assembly of God Church in Memphis, Tennessee. It didn’t take long for gospel music to influence his style.

Elvis rose to stardom in the 1950s on every available platform—television, film, stage, and radio. His success is staggering. He’s estimated to have sold more than 1 billion records around the world, despite never performing overseas. His hits include “That's Alright,” “Hound Dog,” and “Jailhouse Rock,” among over 700 other recorded songs. Elvis also appeared in 31 feature films in just 13 years, and his television specials easily broke viewership records.

Like many of his male fans, Presley was drafted into the U.S. Army. In 1958, he began an 18-month tour of duty in Germany as a driver. But fans wouldn’t have to wait for new music. His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, continued releasing Elvis’s singles, and his career continued to grow even as Elvis served his country. When discharged, Elvis held the rank of sergeant.

On August 16, 1977, Elvis died of a heart attack at his famous Graceland mansion in Memphis. More than 40 years later, Elvis’s music still sells around the world and his home attracts 600,000 people each year.

Roberto Clemente—Teen Baseball Star Who Always Gave Back to the Community

Photo of influential baseball star, Roberto Clemente.

Roberto Clemente wasn’t just an outstanding outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates—he was a pioneer in his field. The Puerto Rican all-star began playing as a teen and, within 2 years, was getting paid to play. In the 1950s, he was drafted by the Pirates and just 6 years later became the first Latin American and Caribbean player to start and win a World Series.

Over his storied career, Clemente played in 15 All-Star games, won his position’s Gold Glove for a dozen consecutive years, claimed his league’s batting title 4 times, and won 2 World Series. At every turn, he set a new standard for excellence and paved the way for athletes young and old who would model their careers after his.

Clemente was known to spend his off-season delivering baseball gear, food, and other aid to those most in need. On December 31, 1972, while the world celebrated the new year, Clemente was killed in a plane crash delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. He was just 38 years old. As news of his passing spread, no one could have been surprised he was out doing good for others when the crash occurred.

Just 1 year after his death, Clemente was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Once again, Clemente blazed a trail in becoming the first Latin American and Caribbean honoree.

All these decades later, baseball players still vie for one of the most prestigious awards in sports, named after Clemente. The Roberto Clemente Award goes to the Major League Baseball Player who "best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement, and the individual's contribution to his team.”

Chuck Cooper—A Hall of Fame Force, On and Off the Basketball Court

Charlie "Chuck" Cooper playing basketball with the Boston Celtics.
From right to left: Chuck Cooper, Bill Sharman, and Ed Mikan playing basketball.

Chuck Cooper might not be as famous as other African American athletes in history, but his immediate impact on the sports world and his legacy today cannot be ignored.

This Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, native grew up with sports on his mind and a basketball in his hands. After dominating with his high school basketball team, he played briefly in 1944 at what was then called West Virginia State College. He was soon drafted and served abroad during the final stages of World War II. Back in the states, he became a starter and All-American at Duquesne University and broke some of its most prestigious records.

Despite his success on the court, he would take even more pride in being the first African American to play in a college game south of the Mason Dixon line. But Cooper was hardly done making history. In 1950 (the year of the census!) he became the very first black athlete drafted by an NBA team when the Boston Celtics selected him as the first pick of the second round. Later in the same draft, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and Earl Lloyd were also drafted, and both credited the Celtics’ courage in selecting Cooper.

Celtics’ great Bob Cousy once said that after the draft, someone in the room asked whether anyone realized that Cooper was black. Team owner Walter Brown famously replied that he didn’t care if Cooper was “striped, plaid, or polka dot. All I know is the kid can play basketball, and we want him on the Boston Celtics.”

After Cooper’s historic career, he earned a Masters in Social Work and served his beloved city of Pittsburgh using his knowledge. He died of liver cancer in 1984 at just 57.

Debbie Reynolds—From Running Errands to Leading Lady

Debbie Reynolds starring in 'Singing in the Rain'.

Debbie Reynolds was born in Texas in 1932, but when she was still a child, her family moved to Burbank, California, and the entertainment industry would never be the same. At age 16, she entered and won the Miss Burbank Contest. Her performance of Betty Hutton’s “My Rockin’ Horse Ran Away” caught the eye of a talent scout, and her career was born.

Reynolds was hired by Warner Brothers but rarely appeared on camera in the early years. Instead, she was often relegated to running errands and giving tours. When her deal expired, she jumped to MGM and spent the next 2 decades entertaining audiences. She first made a splash around the world with her performance opposite Gene Kelly in the classic film, Singin’ in the Rain. She would later appear in The Tender Trap, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, How the West Was Won, and many others. She also worked on Broadway, ruled the recording studio, and found success on television. She even enjoyed voiceover work, including roles on Family Guy and Kim Possible.

Reynolds was also passionate about discussing mental illness and providing greater resources to those in need. She was a cofounder of the Thalians, a nonprofit dedicated to the cause, and led the group for 50 years, raising millions of dollars and inspiring people around the country.

Carrie Fisher, Reynolds’ daughter and an acclaimed actress who was also a household name, died on December 27, 2016. Reynolds’ son, Todd Fisher, said the stress of his sister’s passing was overwhelming. He told the media that moments before his mother died, she said, “I want to be with Carrie.” Just one day later, Reynolds was gone.

Jimmy Stewart—The All American Actor Who Excelled in War and on Screen

Famous actor, Jimmy Stewart, playing in 'It's a Wonderful Life.'

Jimmy Stewart grew up a Pennsylvania boy with a humble heart and a deep love of America. During the depression, he studied and graduated from Princeton with a degree in architecture before taking whatever work he could find. A temporary gig in New York City planted the seeds of a career in entertainment, and at age 27, he signed a deal with legendary studio MGM.

Over his lengthy career, Stewart became one of the most beloved and bankable stars in Hollywood. He starred with Clark Gable, Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford, Margaret Sullavan, Cary Grant, and Katharine Hepburn. He starred in nearly 100 films, including several that have become classics and required viewing for film and acting students like It’s A Wonderful Life, Harvey, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He was also nominated for dozens of awards and won the Academy Award for Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story.

In 1941, at the height of popularity, Stewart followed his heart and family heritage by enlisting in the U.S. Army. He rose to become a Colonel in the Army Air Corps and flew at least 20 B-24 combat missions. He remained committed to the Armed Forces after both world wars and advanced to the rank of Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserves. He was highly decorated throughout his career and capped them all by receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan.

After his active duty, Stewart returned to the screen, and audiences were eager to have him back. He worked for another 30 years, including landmark work in Shenandoah and The Flight of the Phoenix. He delivered a touching performance in the short made-for-television film Mr. Krueger’s Christmas in 1980.

Stewart died in 1997 and was said to be grateful to be reuniting with his wife of 45 years, whom he’d lost 3 years earlier. His last words to his family gathered at his bedside were, "I'm going to be with Gloria now.”

Finding Famous People in the 1950 Census

You may be able to find these famous Americans, as well as members of your own family, in the 1950 U.S. Census. The census document gives a small snapshot of people’s lives in 1950 when the record was created, letting us learn about their household, occupation, education, and more.

Learn more about this remarkable record and how it will be made available.

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