The ability to compare across generations depends upon how you can measure success.
When we consider performers we are limited to work preserved by modern technology.
Enrico Caruso is called the greatest operatic tenor as evidenced by early recordings and the word of those who heard him.
Caruso left many recordings of poor quality because electrical recordings were still years away. Recordings were made by singing or speaking into a metal horn which mechanically created a sound recording by a metal stylus or needle scratching on a plate or cylinder.
Most of Caruso's recordings have been preserved and re-mastered.
There were thousands of opera singers before Caruso's time. We just don't know.
When it comes to dancers we are, again, limited to those who worked after modern motion pictures.
There are no films of Swedish ballerina Marie Taglioni, the most famous dancer of the early 1800s. Her style and technique were copied, and on stage her appearance was described as “weightless.”
We have films of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire who made it look so easy. Perhaps the most famous clip is Kelly's dancing to “Singin' in the Rain,” which took days to film.
Then there were Donald O'Conner and Fred Astaire who, at age 88, married a woman 45 years his junior. You go, Fred.
You can't ignore the Nicholas Brothers. Their long segment in “Orchestra Wives” stops the film.
There isn't much room at the top for female dancers. Of all the comments I could find, Eleanor Powell was described as the greatest female tap dancer, with company from Rita Hayworth and Cyd Charisse.
There were hundreds of Vaudeville performers who transitioned to radio and film, but I wondered who was the funniest? Who was the Tim Conway before audio recordings.
Victorian funny man Dan Leno seems to be the one.
The problem with athletes is comparing them across time. There might have been some fleet-footed guys before time-keeping could measure a hundredth of a second but Jesse Owens stands out as winner of four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics, as does Roger Bannister, the first to run a mile in under four minutes.
Choosing the greatest entertainer, and putting aside those near-Jesuitically known as “the greatest,” I settle on a man who died from overwork.
Al Jolson could and did it all before many of us were born. He was a Vaudeville star, appeared in the first “talkie,” and on radio. He made the transition to early television.
At age 35 he was the youngest man to have a theater named for him.
You have to stop somewhere and I stop on Jolson.
Joe Phillips writes his “Dear me” columns for several small newspapers. He has many connections to Walker County, including his grandfather, former superintendent Waymond Morgan. He can be reached at email@example.com.