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 winner of 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.

This story was updated in 2019.

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