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George M. Cohan

c.1908
Born July 3, 1878(1878-07-03)
Providence, Rhode Island
Died November 5, 1942 (aged 64)
New York City, New York
Occupation Entertainer, Playwright, Composer, Lyricist, Actor, Singer, Dancer, Producer
Spouse(s) Agnes Mary Nolan
(29 June 1907–5 November 1942, his death, 3 children)
Ethel Levey
(1899–1907, divorced, 1 child)
Children Georgette Cohan
Mary Cohan
Helen Cohan
George M Cohan, Jr.
Parents Jeremiah ("Jere") and "Nellie"

George Michael Cohan (pronounced "Coe-han") (July 3, 1878–November 5, 1942), known professionally as George M. Cohan, was an American entertainer, playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer and producer. Known as "the man who owned Broadway" in the decade before World War I, he is considered the father of American musical comedy. A full-length dramatic musical entitled George M that depicted his life and which celebrated his music was produced on Broadway in 1968, as did the Academy Award-winning film Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).

Contents

Early life

Cohan was born 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 the Cohan 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, at first as a prop, later learning to dance and sing soon after he could walk and talk.

He completed a family act called The Four Cohans, which included his father Jeremiah "Jere" (Keohane) [1] Cohan (1848–1917), mother Helen "Nellie" Costigan Cohan (1854–1928), and sister Josephine "Josie" Cohan Niblo (1876–1916). Josie, who died of heart disease at a young age, was married to Fred Niblo Sr. (1874–1948), an important director of silent films, including Ben Hur (1925), and a founder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Their son, Fred Niblo Jr. (1903–1973) was an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter.

Early career

By his teens, Cohan became well-known as one of the stage's best male dancers, and he also started writing original skits and songs for the family act in both vaudeville and minstrel shows. Soon he was writing professionally, selling his first songs to a national publisher in 1893. Cohan had his first big Broadway hit in 1904 with 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 1500 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", and the popular war song, "Over There".

From 1906 to 1926, Cohan and Sam Harris also produced over three dozen shows on Broadway,[2] including the successful Going Up in 1917, which became a smash hit in London the following year.

In 1925, Cohan published his autobiography, Twenty Years on Broadway and the Years It Took to Get There.

Later career

1908 sheet music cover depicting Cohan & Sam Harris along with minstrel show star George "Honey Boy" Evans.

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, co-starring Claudette Colbert and Jimmy Durante, with songs by Rodgers and Hart, and released by Paramount Pictures. He had appeared in some earlier silent films, but only made one other sound film, Gambling, in 1935, based on his own play, but it is 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). His final play, The Return of the Vagabond (1940) featured Celeste Holm in the cast.

The mausoleum of George M. Cohan in Woodlawn Cemetery

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, 993 Fifth Avenue, directly across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 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

Cohan was the pioneer of the musical theater libretto. He is mostly remembered for his songs; however, he invented the "book musical," becoming an early pioneer in bridging the gaps between drama and music, operetta and extravaganza.

Cohan and his sister Josie in the 1890s
Cohan's "Give My Regards to Broadway" statue in Times Square in New York City

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.[3]

In 1914, Cohan became one of the founding members of ASCAP. 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 be in his own productions. Cohan sought a waiver after 1919 from Equity to act in any theatrical productions.

Cohan wrote numerous other Broadway musicals and straight plays, in addition to contributing material to shows written by others — more 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 that he walked in and out of retirement.

Cohan is arguably the most honored American entertainer. 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. The Congressional Gold Medal is not the military Medal of Honor presented by the President in the name of Congress.

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.[4] 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 large 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 his former residence, which was slated for demolition. Helen Ronkin Lafaso and Ms. Mary Ronkin Ross, the grandchildren of Mr. 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 with an officially bestowed title.[5] The USMMA Regimental Band now owns the rights to all of George M Cohan's music. The bulk of George M. Cohan's music is in 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 life

Cohan in 1933, photo by Carl Van Vechten

From 1899 to 1907 Cohan was married to Ethel Levey (1881–1955), a musical comedy actress who bore him a daughter, Georgette Cohan Souther Rowse (1900–1988). He married again in 1907 to Agnes Mary Nolan (1883–1972), who had been a dancer in his early shows; they remained married until his death. They had two daughters (Mary and Helen) and a son (George, Jr.).

Mary Cohan Ronkin (1909–1983) had a brief career as a cabaret singer in the 1930s, and later composed a score for her father's non-musical play The Tavern, and in 1968 supervised musical and lyric revisions for the Broadway play George M!.

Helen Cohan Carola (1910–1996) made several movies, including Lightnin' (1930) starring Will Rogers, and was one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1934.

George M. Cohan, Jr. (1914–2000) 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 (1943–1999), 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.

In popular culture

  • As noted above, James Cagney played Cohan in the 1942 biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy. Cagney played Cohan once more in the 1955 film The Seven Little Foys, starring Bob Hope as the vaudevillian Eddie Foy. Cagney performed this role free of charge as an expression of his gratitude to Eddie Foy Sr., who had done Cagney a favor during Cagney's early vaudeville days.
  • Mickey Rooney played Cohan in Mr. Broadway, a television special broadcast on NBC on May 11, 1957. The same month, Rooney released a 78 RPM record: the A-side featured Rooney singing Cohan's best-known songs; the B-side featured Rooney singing several of his own compositions, such as the maudlin "You Couldn't Count the Raindrops for the Tears".
  • Joel Grey starred on Broadway in a biographical revue of Cohan's music, George M! (1968), which was adapted into a NBC television special in 1970.
  • Donny Osmond took the Cohan role in a 1982 Broadway adaptation of Little Johnny Jones, which was so poorly received and reviewed that it ran only one night.
  • Allan Sherman sang a parody-medley of three Cohan tunes on an early album: "Barry (That'll Be the Baby's Name)"; "H-o-r-o-w-i-t-z"; and "Get on the Garden Freeway" to the tune of "Mary's a Grand Old Name", "Harrigan" and "Give My Regards to Broadway", respectively.
  • Cohan's 1932 film, The Phantom President, was remade in 1993 as Dave, starring Kevin Kline in the dual role, and Sigourney Weaver as the First Lady.
  • The title of the book and the movie Born on the Fourth of July, about disabled Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic, was directly inspired by a well-known line from Cohan's song, The Yankee Doodle Boy.
  • The Pogues song "Thousands are Sailing", which was written by Phillip Chevron, on their album, "If I Should Fall From Grace With God", tells of somebody walking around New York, Then we said 'Goodnight' to Broadway, giving it our best regards, tipped our hat to Mr Cohan, dear old Times Square's favourite bard...
  • The life of Cohan was presented as a one-man show in Chip Deffaa's George M. Cohan Tonight!, which ran Off-Broadway at the Irish Repertory Theatre in 2006, with Jon Peterson as Cohan.[6]

References

  1. ^ Cullen, Frank; Hackman, Florence; and Neilly, Donald (eds.). Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America. p. 243
  2. ^ IBDB: The official source for Broadway Information at www.ibdb.com
  3. ^ Thomas S. Hischak, Boy Loses Girl (ISBN 0-8108-4440-0
  4. ^ New York City Parks information and statue
  5. ^ USMMA Regimental Band History
  6. ^ George M. Cohan Tonight! on the Internet Off-Broadway Database

External links








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