George Michael Cohan (July 3, 1878 November 5, 1942), known professionally as George M. Cohan, was a major American entertainer, playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer, and producer.
Cohan began his career as a child, performing with his parents and sister in vaudeville as one of the "The Four Cohans." Before long, he was writing songs and sketches, and he went on to write some 500 songs during his lifetime. He also wrote, produced, and starred in many Broadway musicals. Cohan's many popular songs include "Over There", "Give My Regards to Broadway", "The Yankee Doodle Boy", and "You're a Grand Old Flag". Beginning with Little Johnny Jones in 1904, he wrote and appeared in more than three dozen shows that were produced on Broadway. He displayed remarkable theatrical longevity, continuing to perform as a headline artist until 1940. Cohan also appeared in films, including The Phantom President in 1932. Off stage, he was one of the founders of ASCAP.
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Known in the decade before World War I as "the man who owned Broadway," he is considered the father of American musical comedy. His life and music were depicted in the Academy Award-winning film Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and the 1968 musical George M!. A statue of Cohan is in Times Square in New York City.
Cohan was born in 1878 in Providence, Rhode Island, to Irish Catholic parents. A baptismal certificate (which gave the wrong first name for his mother) indicated that he was born on July 3, but Cohan and his family always insisted that George had been "born on the Fourth of July!" George's parents were traveling vaudeville performers, and he joined them on stage while still an infant, first as a prop, learning to dance and sing soon after he could walk and talk.
Cohan started as a child performer at age 8, first on the violin and then as a dancer. He was the fourth member of the family act called The Four Cohans, which included his father Jeremiah "Jere" (Keohane) Cohan (18481917), mother Helen "Nellie" Costigan Cohan (18541928) and sister Josephine "Josie" Cohan Niblo (18761916). The family mostly toured together from 1890 to 1901. He and his sister made their Broadway debut in 1893 in a sketch called The Lively Bootblack.
Temperamental in his early years, Cohan later learned to control his frustrations. During these years, Cohan originated his famous curtain speech: "My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you."
He began writing original skits (over 150 of them) and songs for the family act in both vaudeville and minstrel shows while in his teens. Soon he was writing professionally, selling his first songs to a national publisher in 1893. In 1901 he wrote, directed and produced his first Broadway musical, "The Governor's Son", for The Four Cohans. His first big Broadway hit in 1904 was the show Little Johnny Jones, which introduced his tunes "Give My Regards to Broadway" and "The Yankee Doodle Boy."
Cohan became one of the leading Tin Pan Alley songwriters, publishing upwards of 300 original songs noted for their catchy melodies and clever lyrics. His other major hit songs included "You're a Grand Old Flag," "Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway," "Mary Is a Grand Old Name," "The Warmest Baby in the Bunch," "Life's a Funny Proposition After All," "I Want To Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune," "You Won't Do Any Business If You Haven't Got a Band," "The Small Town Gal," "I'm Mighty Glad I'm Living, That's All," "That Haunting Melody," "Always Leave Them Laughing When You Say Goodbye", and America's most popular World War I song "Over There."
From 1904 to 1920, Cohan created and produced over fifty musicals, plays and revues on Broadway together with his friend Sam Harris, including Give My Regards to Broadway and the successful Going Up in 1917, which became a smash hit in London the following year. They ran shows simultaneously in as many as five theatres. One of Cohan's most innovative plays was a dramatization of the mystery "Seven Keys to Baldpate" in 1913, which baffled some audiences and critics but became a hit. Cohan dropped out of acting for some years after his 1919 dispute with Actors' Equity Association, described below.
In 1925, he published his autobiography, Twenty Years on Broadway and the Years It Took To Get There.
Cohan appeared in 1930 in a revival of his tribute to vaudeville and his father, The Song and Dance Man. In 1932, Cohan starred in a dual role as a cold, corrupt politician and his charming, idealistic campaign double in the Hollywood musical film The Phantom President. The film co-starred Claudette Colbert and Jimmy Durante, with songs by Rodgers and Hart, and was released by Paramount Pictures. He appeared in some earlier silent films but only made one other sound film, Gambling, in 1935, which was based on his own play. It is considered a lost film.
Cohan earned acclaim as a serious actor in Eugene O'Neill's only comedy, Ah, Wilderness! (1933), and in the role of a song-and-dance President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Rodgers and Hart's musical I'd Rather Be Right (1937). The same year, he reunited with Harris to produce a play called "Fulton of Oak Falls", starring Cohan. His final play, The Return of the Vagabond (1940), featured a young Celeste Holm in the cast.
In 1940, Judy Garland played the title role in a film version of his 1922 musical Little Nellie Kelly. Cohan's mystery play Seven Keys to Baldpate was first filmed in 1916 and has been remade seven times, most recently as House of Long Shadows (1983), starring Vincent Price. In 1942, a musical biopic of Cohan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, was released, and James Cagney's performance in the title role earned the Best Actor Academy Award. The film was privately screened for Cohan as he battled the last stages of abdominal cancer. Cohan's 1920 play The Meanest Man in the World was filmed with Jack Benny in 1943.
Cohan died of cancer at the age of 64 on November 5, 1942, at his New York City home at 993 Fifth Avenue. After a large funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York, on Fifth Avenue, Cohan was interred at the Bronx's Woodlawn Cemetery, in a private family mausoleum he had erected a quarter century earlier for his sister and parents.
Influence and legacy
Although Cohan is mostly remembered for his songs, he became an early pioneer in the development of the "book musical," bridging the gaps in his libretti between drama and music, operetta and extravaganza. More than three decades before Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, Cohan used dance not merely as razzle-dazzle but to advance the plot. The engaging books of his musicals supported the scores that yielded so many popular songs. As a storyteller, Cohan's main characters were "average Joes and Janes." Characters like Johnny Jones and Nellie Kelly appealed to a whole new audience. He wrote for every American instead of highbrow Americans.
In 1914, Cohan became one of the founding members of ASCAP. Although Cohan was known as extremely generous to his fellow actors in need, in 1919, he unsuccessfully opposed a historic strike by Actors' Equity Association, for which many in the theatrical professions never forgave him. Cohan opposed the strike because in addition to being an actor in his productions, he was also the producer of the musical that set the terms and conditions of the actors' employment. During the strike, he donated $100,000 to finance the Actors' Retirement Fund in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. After Actors' Equity was recognized, Cohan refused to join the union as an actor, which hampered his ability to appear in his own productions. Cohan sought a waiver from Equity allowing him to act in any theatrical production. In 1930, Cohan sued the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, winning a ruling that allowed the deduction, for federal income tax purposes, of business travel and entertainment expenses.
Cohan wrote numerous Broadway musicals and straight plays in addition to contributing material to shows written by othersmore than 50 in all. Cohan shows included Forty-five Minutes from Broadway (1905), George Washington, Jr. (1906), The Talk of New York and The Honeymooners (1907), Fifty Miles from Boston and The Yankee Prince (1908), Broadway Jones (1912), Seven Keys to Baldpate (1913), The Cohan Revue of 1918 (co-written with Irving Berlin), The Tavern (1920), The Rise of Rosie O'Reilly (1923, featuring a 13-year-old Ruby Keeler among the chorus girls), The Song and Dance Man (1923), American Born (1925), The Baby Cyclone (1927, one of Spencer Tracy's early breaks), Elmer the Great (1928, co-written with Ring Lardner), and Pigeons and People (1933). At this point in his life, it is often said, he walked in and out of retirement.
Cohan is arguably one of the most honored American entertainers. On June 29, 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented him with The Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to World War I morale, in particular the songs "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "Over There." Cohan was the first person in any artistic field selected for this honor, which previously had gone only to military and political leaders, philanthropists, scientists, inventors, and explorers.
In 1959, at the behest of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, a $100,000 bronze statue of Cohan was dedicated in Times Square at Broadway and 46th Street in Manhattan. The 8-foot bronze remains the only statue of an actor on Broadway. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, and into the American Folklore Hall of Fame in 2003. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 6734 Hollywood Boulevard. Cohan was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame on October 15, 2006. Many of these honors were accepted posthumously by Cohan's family.
The United States Postal Service issued a 15-cent commemorative stamp honoring Cohan on the anniversary of his centenary, July 3, 1978. The stamp, one of the long-running Performing Arts Series of the USPS, depicts both the older Cohan and his younger self as a dancer, along with the tag line "Yankee Doodle Dandy." It was designed by Jim Sharpe.
In 1999, the Regimental Band of the United States Merchant Marine Academy was instrumental in helping the local community and Park District of Great Neck, NY, save Cohan's former residence, which was slated for demolition. Helen Ronkin Lafaso and Ms. Mary Ronkin Ross, the grandchildren of Cohan, formally thanked the band for their support and gave the band the honor to be called "George M. Cohan's Own" for "now and in the future." Thus, the Regimental Band became the first federal academy band to have an officially bestowed title. The USMMA Regimental Band now owns the rights to Cohan's music that has not yet fallen into the public domain.
On July 3, 2009, a bronze bust of Cohan was unveiled at the corner of Wickenden and Governor Streets in the Fox Point neighborhood in Providence, a few blocks from where the cold-water flat he was born in once stood. The inscription under the sculpture, by artist Robert Shure, reads (in part): "Son of Providence/Father of the Broadway Musical Comedy." The city renamed the corner the George M. Cohan Plaza. The unveiling ceremony also included the presentation of a planned annual George M. Cohan Award for Excellence in Art & Culture. The first award went to Curt Columbus, the artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company, a Tony award-winning theater group which performs in the former Majestic Theater building in Providence where Cohan once performed with his family.
Family and personal life
From 1899 to 1907, Cohan was married to Ethel Levey (18811955), a musical comedy actress and dancer who joined the Four Cohans when his sister married. Levey and Cohan had a daughter, actress Georgette Cohan Souther Rowse (19001988). He married again in 1908, to Agnes Mary Nolan (18831972), who had been a dancer in his early shows; they remained married until his death. They had two daughters and a son. The eldest was Mary Cohan Ronkin, a cabaret singer in the 1930s, who composed incidental music for her father's play The Tavern. In 1968, Mary supervised musical and lyric revisions for the Broadway play George M!. Their second daughter was Helen Cohan Carola, a film actress, who performed on Broadway with her father in Friendship in 1931.
Their youngest child was George Michael Cohan, Jr. (19142000), who graduated from Georgetown University and served in the entertainment corps during World War II. In the 1950s, George Jr. reinterpreted his father's songs on recordings, in a nightclub act, and in television appearances on the Ed Sullivan and Milton Berle shows. George Jr.'s only child, Michaela Marie Cohan (19431999), was the last descendant named Cohan. She graduated with a theater degree from Marywood College, Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1965. From 1966 to 1968, she served in a civilian Special Services unit in Vietnam and Korea. In 1996, she stood in for her ailing father at the ceremony marking her grandfather's induction into the Musical Theatre Hall of Fame, at New York University.
Cohan was a devoted baseball fan, regularly attending games of the former New York Giants.