Arts and Leisure

George M. Cohan, Way More Than A Song-and-Dance Man

George M. Cohan at 22 years old produced a Broadway play that injected American theatre with something new: energy and speed. Called The Governor’s Son, it opened on Feb. 25, 1901 featuring exuberant characters who spoke like Americans. Unlike most theatrical productions of the time, it was not a rehash of European operettas.

George M. Cohan

George M. Cohan

It was a flop.

Cohan kept trying. He finally had a hit – one of Broadway’s greatest -- in 1904 with Little Johnny Jones, featuring the song, I’m a Yankee Doodle Boy. Over his lifetime, he wrote many more patriotic and show tunes, including Over There, You’re A Grand Old Flag and Give My Regards to Broadway.  He was an actor, singer, producer, director, composer and lyricist, known as known as ‘the man who owned Broadway’ and ‘the father of musical comedy. New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia praised him for putting the symbols of American Life into American music.

George M. Cohan

George M. Cohan was born in a small theatrical hotel on July 3, 1878 in Providence, R.I., a few hours before midnight. He always insisted his birthday was on the Fourth of July. As soon as he learned to talk and walk he was performing on the vaudeville circuit. Along with his parents, Jerry and Helen, and sister, Josie, they formed The Four Cohans.

As a child, Cohan spent summers with his relatives in Podunk, Mass., now part of East Brookfield. He was fond of Podunk and what he called its ‘hayseed hicks,’ making them famous in his shows. Other entertainers picked up the word Podunk to mean a small, dull town.

On stage, he had a swaggering, energetic persona, characterized by The New York Times as

An old trouper and hoofer, whose dapper costumes, derby or straw hat cocked jauntily over one eye, wisecracks from the corner of the mouth, and lively caper across the stage with his fast-swinging cane, were nationally known trademarks, he was regarded for years as just a Broadway vaudeville performer, but astonished the theatrical world by developing into a serious actor and dramatist whose work won praise even from the intellectuals who had previously ignored him.

'Okay, Kid'

One of his favorite theatrical devices was to close a show with a flag-waving finale that usually brought down the house. For his inspirational patriotic songs – particularly You’re a Grand Old Flag and Over There – he received a gold medal under a special act of Congress. President Franklin Roosevelt, who Cohan had impersonated in the play I’d Rather Be Right, presented the award to him.

Josie and George M. Cohan

Josie and George M. Cohan

He became a very rich man, but he lived simply and gave away a great deal of money. Cohan was a soft touch who replied ‘Okay, kid,’ to anyone who approached him for money. He gave allowances to many people he and his family knew in the theatre and had fallen on hard times. Cohan once loaned several hundred thousand dollars to a friend who lost money in the stock market.

He died in New York City on Nov. 5, 1942 at the age of 64, but not before Hollywood made a biopic about him.  Yankee Doodle Dandy starred James Cagney, another Irish-American song-and-dance man. Cohan wasn’t impressed by the film, the biggest box office hit in Warner Brothers’ history and won several Academy Awards. It is preserved in the National Film Registry because of its significance. You can see a great clip from the movie here.

A statue of Cohan stands in Times Square in New York City and Fox Point in Providence.

24 Comments

24 Comments

  1. Molly

    February 25, 2014 at 9:14 pm

    What a talented man he was….real gift to the
    American theatre. I watch “Yankee Doodle Dandy” every chance I get! and wasn’t
    James Cagney great,too.

  2. Molly

    February 25, 2014 at 9:21 pm

    Oh, and I forgot to say thank you for making the film clip available!

  3. Molly Landrigan

    February 26, 2014 at 8:07 pm

    He’s a Yankee Doodle Dandy!!!

  4. Pingback: Moxie, The Path to the Good Life | New England Historical Society

  5. Isis Luna Sky

    July 3, 2014 at 10:22 pm

    🙂 Awesome article

  6. Frederick Mikkelsen

    July 4, 2014 at 6:52 am

    And somebody stole the plaque from his house on Wickenden St.

  7. Frederick Mikkelsen

    July 4, 2014 at 6:52 am

    And somebody stole the plaque from his house on Wickenden St.

  8. Molly Landrigan

    July 4, 2014 at 8:11 am

    Great article and thanks for the James Cagney film clip. One of my very favorite films!

  9. Molly Landrigan

    July 4, 2014 at 8:11 am

    Great article and thanks for the James Cagney film clip. One of my very favorite films!

  10. Pingback: Flashback Photo: Remembering Martin Bergen, From Beaneaters Star to Murder-Suicide - New England Historical Society

  11. Pingback: S. Z. Poli, the Italian Immigrant Who Horrified the Yankees - New England Historical Society

  12. Pingback: Flashback Photos: Charles Hoyt, the Sad New Hampshire Man Who Made Broadway Laugh - New England Historical Society

  13. Pingback: Rudy Vallee: 'Maine Yankee with a Streak of French Hedonism' - New England Historical Society

  14. Pingback: Female Impersonator Julian Eltinge Gets His Start in Boston's Gay '90s - New England Historical Society

  15. Pingback: The Provincetown Players Revolutionize American Theater - New England Historical Society

  16. Pingback: Benjamin Franklin Keith Bans the Word ‘Pants,’ Builds a Theatrical Empire - New England Historical Society

  17. Pingback: 6 Hollywood Stars Buried in New England - New England Historical Society

  18. Pingback: The Mysterious Death of Newport Movie Mogul Thomas Ince - New England Historical Society

  19. Pingback: The New England Summer Theater - Six of the Oldest - New England Historical Society

  20. Pingback: Flashback Photo: Eva Tanguay, The Lady Gaga of Vaudeville - New England Historical Society

  21. Pingback: Remembering Martin Bergen, From Beaneaters Star to Murder-Suicide - New England Historical Society

  22. Pingback: The Crucible, or How Arthur Miller Got the Salem Witch Trials Wrong - New England Historical Society

  23. Pingback: Why the Ghost of Eugene O’Neill Haunts a BU Dorm - New England Historical Society

  24. Pingback: Adrian, The Hatmaker's Son Who Dressed America - New England Historical Society

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top