About the Entertainer

BIOGRAPHY OF GEORGE M. COHAN

George M. Cohan

(Entertainer, born July 3, 1878, Providence, R.I.; died November 5, 1942, New York, NY)

Note: Only those aspects of Cohan’s career dealing with composing and lyrics will be covered here. However, his life’s work also includes playwriting; acting, and a vaudeville song-and-dance man.

OVERVIEW

autographed photo of CohanThis great American song and dance man spent 56 of his 64 years on the stage. During his lifetime, he wrote 40 plays, collaborated with others on another 40 plays, and shared production of still another 150 plays. He made over a 1000 appearances as an actor. Some of the more than 500 songs that he wrote were major national hits.

His parents were circuit traveling vaudevillians, Jeremiah and Helen Cohan, who had three children. The first died in infancy, Josephine was the second child preceding George by just two years. As was the life of vaudevillians in those days, the family “lived out of a trunk.” traveling from town to town, staying in shabby boarding houses. Often the children would sleep in the theater dressing room while the parents were on stage.

George had only a mild taste of public school education, as well as just a few lessons on the violin. The theater became his school, — and he was an apt pupil. He appeared in one of his parent’s stage sketches as a “prop” while still an infant. When he was nine years old, he became a member of the act, with his sister Josephine joining him just one year later. Now, the act was officially billed as The Four Cohans. George would do sentimental recitations; a bootblack specialty, and often perform a “buck and wing dance.” By age 11, he was writing special material, and by age 13 he was writing songs and lyrics for the act.

He was just 16 years old when in 1894, he sold his first song to Witmark Music Publishing.

  • 1894 Why Did Nellie Leave Home?, Witmark paid him $25.00.
  • 1895 Hot Tamale Alley, sold to vaudevillian May Irwin for her act.
  • 1897 The Warmest Baby in the Bunch
  • 1898 I Guess I’ll Have to Telegraph My Baby

Cohan and his family“The Four Cohans” were now “headliners” commanding a $1000.00 per week. George was writing the songs and the sketches; He became the starring actor. He was also selling original songs and sketches to other acts. And, he topped this all by managing the family’s business affairs. He was now 20 years of age, and in complete control of the act. Isidore Witmark, in his autobiography, has pointed out that the young (and also the mature) George Cohan was an opinionated, brash, cocky youngster with a very high opinion (justified) of his own gifts.

In 1899, George married his first wife, Ethel Levey, a popular singing comedienne. She became the “fifth” Cohan in the act.

Cohan now began to turn his attention to the Broadway Musical Comedy stage.

  • In 1901, The Governor’s Son was his first musical.
  • In 1903, Running For Office was his second.

Both were based on his vaudeville sketches, and both were failures.

1904:

In 1904, George and Sam Harris formed a partnership that was destined to become one of Broadway’s most successful producing firms.

1904, Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones opened on Broadway, with Cohan playing the role of a jockey. It became a huge hit. Among the songs were:

  • The Yankee Doodle Boy (aka I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy)
  • Give My Regards To Broadway

1906:

  • Forty Five Minutes From Broadway, book, music, lyrics by Cohan.

Cohan was not in the show. Victor Moore and Fay Templeton starred. (But Cohan did have a role in the 1912 revival.)

  • So Long Mary
  • Mary’s A Grand Old Name
Drawing of M. Cohan by Walter Kinstler, 1923, National Portrait Gallery
Drawing of M. Cohan by Walter Kinstler, 1923, National Portrait Gallery
1906, George Washington, Jr. Cohan starred. In this play, he adopted a sketch with which he would be identified for life. He would march up and down the stage carrying the American flag while singing a very patriotic tune. In this play, the patriotic song was: You’re A Grand Old Flag. The original title was You’re a Grand Old Rag, but some folks objected, and Cohan renamed the tune.

In 1907, Cohan divorced Ethel, and later in the same year, George married Agnes Nolan. Agnes was a sister of Sam Harris’s wife.

1907:

  • The Talk of the Town
  • When a Fellow’s On the Level with A Girl Who’s On the Square
  • I Want You
  • Under Any Old Flag At All

1908:

  • Fifty Miles from Boston
  • The Yankee Prince
  • Come On Downtown
  • The American Idea

1909:

  • The Man Who Owns Broadway
  • There’s Something About A Uniform

1910:

  • Get Rich Quick Wallingford, a non-musical comedy.

In 1911, the Cohan-Harris partnership had no fewer than 6 hit shows on Broadway, and controlled 7 theaters.

  • 1911, The Little Millionaire
  • 1913, Broadway Jones, a non-musical comedy.
  • 1913, Seven Keys to Baldpate, a non-musical comedy.
  • 1914, Hello Broadway
  • 1916, The Cohan Revue, 1916 Edition
  • 1917, The Cohan Revue, 1917 Edition

In 1917, Cohan composed his greatest hit song. America had just entered World War 1. Cohan was living in New Rochelle (“Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway”). On the train down to New York, he thought of a song. Cohan has said “I read those war headlines, and I got to thinking and humming to myself, and for a minute, I thought I was going to dance. I was all finished with both the chorus and the verse by the time I got to town, and I also had a title.” The title was Over There. Charles King introduced the song in the New Amsterdam Theater in 1917; the Nora Bayes recording made it a national hit. 25 years later, Congress authorized President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to present the Congressional Medal of Honor for this war song.

In 1919, Actor’s Equity called a strike in an effort to gain recognition as bargaining agent for it’s membership. This strike closed the Broadway theaters. As a producer, Cohan was affected. He took it badly. Many of the people who aligned themselves with Equity, were folks whom Cohan had helped with their careers. He became quite bitter, lost his enthusiam, even broke up the successful Cohan-Harris partnership, and retired from show business. He even cancelled his memberships in the Friar’s Club and The Lambs. (Two Broadway organizations.) But show people can no longer stay away from the stage, than composers can stay away from music. After some rest and travel, Cohan returned to Broadway.

  • 1923 The Song and Dance Man
  • 1927 The Merry Malones
  • 1929 The Tavern, a revival of a 1920 play.
  • 1928 Billie, his last musical comedy.

James Cagney in Yankee Doodle DandyBasically, none of these were successful, and this added to Cohan’s bitterness. Cohan remarked to a friend, “It getting to be too much for me, kid. I guess people don’t understand me any more, and I don’t understand them.” He was due for still another disappointment.

In 1932, he starred in a Hollywood film, The Phantom President.

In Hollywood, he found directors, who had never acted or sang, trying to teach him how to sing and dance, and to wave the flag. He felt that the big Hollywood moguls did not give him the homage that was his due. He returned to Broadway, and vowed never to return to Hollywood. But success was again hovering just around the corner.

  • 1933, Cohan starred in Eugene O’Neil’s Ah, Wilderness, A hit!
  • 1937, Cohan played F.D.Roosevelt in I’d Rather Be Right, a Rodgers and Hart hit show.
  • 1940, Cohan wrote the Broadway play, The return of the Vagabond.
  • It had a 7-performance run. Cohan told a friend “They don’t want me no more.”
  • 1942, Hollywood filmed Yankee Doodle Dandy a biography (so-to-speak) of his life. Jimmy Cagney won an Academy Award for his impersonation of Cohan.

In was in 1942, while Cohan was recovering from an abdominal operation, that he paid his last respects to Broadway. He asked his nurse to accompany him on a taxi ride from Union Square (14th Street) up to Times Square (42nd Street), stopping briefly at the Hollywood Theater, to watch some scenes from Yankee Doodle Dandy. Cohan was taking one last look at all the places he had worked and starred. He was never to see Broadway again.

George M. Cohan died on Nov. 5, 1942. President Roosevelt wired “A beloved figure is lost to our national life.”