Cohan, George M. (1878-1942)

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Cohan, George M. (1878-1942)

The musical comedy stage of New York was home to George M. Cohan, vaudeville song-and-dance man, playwright, manager, director, producer, comic actor, and popular songwriter. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Cohan's style of light comedic drama dominated American theatre, and the lyrics he composed are still remembered at the end of the twentieth century for their flag-waving patriotism and exuberance. His hit song "Over There" embodied the wartime spirit of World War I, and "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "Grand Old Flag," have been passed from generation to generation as popular tunes celebrating the American spirit.

Born on July 3 in Providence, Rhode Island, Cohan spent his childhood as part of a vaudevillian family. Living the typical vaudeville life, Cohan and his sister traveled a circuit of stages, slept in boarding houses and backstage while their parents performed, and only occasionally attended school. At nine years old, Cohan became a member of his parents' act, reciting sentimental verse and performing a "buck and wing dance." By the age of eleven, he was writing comedy material, and by thirteen he was writing songs and lyrics for the act, which was now billed as The Four Cohans. In 1894, at the age of sixteen, Cohan sold his first song, "Why Did Nellie Leave Home?" to a sheet music publisher for twenty-five dollars.

In his late teens, Cohan began directing The Four Cohans, which became a major attraction, earning up to a thousand dollars for a week's booking. Cohan wrote the songs and sketches that his family performed, and had the starring roles. At twenty years of age, managing the family's business affairs, he was becoming a brazen, young man, proud of his achievements. When he was twenty-one, he married his first wife, Ethel Levey, a popular singing comedienne, who then became the fifth Cohan in the act.

Within two years, seeking the fame, high salaries, and excitement that life in New York theatre offered, Cohan centered his career on the Broadway stage. His first Broadway production, The Governor's Son, was a musical comedy that he wrote and in which he performed in 1901. It was not the hit he hoped for, but after two more attempts, Cohan enjoyed his first Broadway success with Little Johnny Jones in 1904. In this musical, Cohan played the role of a jockey and sang the lyrics that would live through the century: "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy, /A Yankee Doodle, do or die; /A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam's /Born on the Fourth of July." Among the other hit songs from the play was "Give My Regards to Broadway." In Cohan's 1906 hit George Washington, Jr., he acted in a scene with which he would be identified for life: he marched up and down the stage carrying the American flag and singing "You're a Grand Old Flag," the song that would become one of the most popular American marching-band pieces of all time. Other of Cohan's most famous plays are Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway (1906), The Talk of New York (1907), The Little Millionaire (1911), The Song and Dance Man (1923), and Little Nelly Kelly (1923).

In 1917, when America entered World War I, Cohan was inspired to compose "Over There," the song that would become his greatest hit. Americans coast to coast listened to the recording made by popular singer Nora Bayes. Twenty-five years later, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt awarded Cohan the Congressional Medal of Honor for the patriotic spirit expressed in this war song.

Cohan achieved immortality through his songs and performances, and the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy perpetuated his image. In it, James Cagney portrayed Cohan with all of Cohan's own enthusiasm and brilliance. The film told the story of Cohan's life and included the hit songs that made him an American legend. The film was playing in American theatres when Cohan died in 1942. President Roosevelt wired his family that "a beloved figure is lost to our national life."

—Sharon Brown

Further Reading:

Buckner, Robert, and Patrick McGilligan. Yankee Doodle Dandy. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.

Cohan, George Michael. Twenty Years on Broadway, and the Years It Took to Get There: The True Story of a Trouper's Life from the Cradle to the "Closed Shop." Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1971.

McCabe, John. George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1973.

Morehouse, Ward. George M. Cohan, Prince of the American Theater. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1972.