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. 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.
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.”
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. 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.”
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!
 1940 Federal Census, T627_4098, for Melvin, Texas, p. 5A, E.D. 154–6.
 U.S. World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938–1946 [database on-line].
 Billboard, 28 September 1959, 53.
 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.View all posts by Scott C. Steward →