Reference Entry

Russell, Sol Smith

in American National Biography Online


Published online February 2000 | e-ISBN: 9780198606697

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actor, was born Solomon Smith Russell in Brunswick, Missouri, the son of Charles Elmer Russell, a storekeeper, and Louisa Mathews, the daughter of a music teacher. He was named for Solomon Smith, his uncle by marriage and a leading theatrical manager of the time. The young Russell showed an interest in the theater, putting on shows with friends and becoming a class clown, but his parents opposed this attraction. His uncle Sol Smith, however, allowed him to see his work and visit backstage. The child lived with his parents in Missouri and Illinois but left home to join the Union army as a drummer boy during the Civil War. He left the army in 1862, then joined a theater company in Cairo, Illinois, and slowly began to learn his craft. For six dollars a week, from which the young actor paid three dollars and a half for board while living in the theater, he soon emerged as a young man of disparate talents: he could drum in the orchestra, sing comic songs, and—because of his youth and delicacy—he could also play female roles. All the while he watched his colleagues closely, studying scripts and reading widely.

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