Profile of a Performer: George M. Cohan

George M. Cohan
A young George M. Cohan

George M. Cohan was a popular vaudeville and Broadway act.

He was born July 3, 1878 in Rhode Island.  He and his parents always insisted he was born on the 4th of July, 1878.   He began performing with his parents and sister at a young age.  Before he was able to walk, he was used as a prop.  He learned to dance and sing, while learning to walk and talk.  They were known in the vaudeville circuit as “The Four Cohan’s.”

His Broadway debut was made in The Lively Bootblack in 1893. That same year he sold his first song to a national publisher.  During these early years he originated his famous curtain call which he’d use for the rest of his career.  His speech was “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.”

When his sister married, Ethel Levey, joined the family act.  Ethel and George were married in 1899.  Their marriage would last eight years and produce a daughter.

George wrote his first musical, Little Johnny Jones, in 1904.  The musical introduced his hits “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy.”   After that he wrote, composed, produced and acted in more than three dozen Broadway musicals.   In 1908, he married Agnes Mary Nolan and they had two daughters and a son together.  This marriage would last thirty-four years until his death.

George M. Cohan dressed as Yankee Doodle
George M. Cohan dressed as Yankee Doodle

From 1904 until 1920, Cohan and his friend, Sam Harris, produced over fifty Broadway musicals and plays on Broadway.   There were times when he five shows performing in different theatres. Before the outbreak of World War I, Cohan was known as “the man who owned Broadway.” He is considered the father of the American musical comedy.  He became an early leader in the book musical that is still used today.  He knew had to use dance and songs to advance the plot, and not just as a fill in.

He was one of the first charter members to join ASCAP {American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers} in 1914.  Some of the more popular songs he composed include “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway,” “You’re A Grand Ole Flag,” “Over There,” “Always Leave Them Laughing When You Say Goodbye”, and “I Want to Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune.”  He composed more than 500 songs during his long career.

In 1919, Cohan opposed a strike by the Actor’s Equity Association.  This opposition and refusal to join  prevented him from acting for a number of years.  He eventually sough a waiver to appear in his own productions.  In 1925 he published his autobiography, Twenty Years on Broadway and the Years It Took To Get There.

In 1930 he sued the IRS to be able to deduct business travel, entertainment expenses and other deductions from his federal taxes.  This was a suit that he won.  He loved baseball and regularly attended he games of the New York Giants.

George M. Cohan
George M. Cohan

Cohan stared in several silent films, but only two talkies.  These were 1932s “The Phantom President”* and 1935s “Gambling” {which has been lost}. On June 29, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to World War I morale.  He was the first person in an artistic field to win this honor.

The musicals “Yankee Doodle Dandy {film} staring James Cagney and “George M! {stage} are about his life.  Shortly before his death he saw a private screening of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.

George M. Cohan died on November 5, 1942 of cancer at his New York City home.  He is buried with his parents and sister at Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

A statue of George M. Cohan is in Times Square in New York.

 

*Note: The Phantom President was remade in 1993 and stared Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver.  The movie is called Dave.

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