By Rachelle Hughes
Self-proclaimed “song and dance man” George M. Cohan spent all but eight of his sixty-four years involved with theatre. His body of work and his undeniable musical, dancing, writing, and acting talent made him a theatrical legend. Cohan was born to famous vaudeville performers Jeremiah and Helen Costigan Cohan, known as Jerry and Nellie, in Rhode Island. There is some question as to the date of his birth as he and his family always said he was born on the Fourth of July, but a baptismal certificate lists his birth as July 3, 1878. But he chose to claim the Fourth of July birthdate as it catered to his “Yankee Doodle Dandy” image.
Cohan’s parents toured the country with their vaudeville act and by age eight Cohan was good enough on the violin to be in the orchestra pit. However, he was not fond of playing the violin and by the time he was eleven, he joined his parents and older sister Josie on the stage as the song and dance act, The Four Cohans. The family toured on the prestigious B.F. Keith circuit for many years. Despite Cohan’s obvious talent he was a bit of a backstage troublemaker in his youth. He often told off directors and stagehands and caused a bit of a ruckus as a teenager. When his family was billed as the dreaded first act in Vaudeville he would fly into a rage telling the theatre manager that someday he would buy the theatre “just to throw you out” (“George M. Cohan, 64, Dies at Home Here,” www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0703.html). Ironically, he was, eventually, the owner of a string of theatres. While his temper was well-known in his youth, a few humbling experiences taught him to keep his emotions to himself as he got older.
While Cohan’s father insisted that they were more successful on the road, Cohan wanted his chance at stardom in New York City. At fourteen he tried to run away to Manhattan, but his father caught up to him in time and declared that the whole family would run away to New York together. Unfortunately, The Four Cohans were billed separately at Keith’s Union Square Theatre. George had little success as he got first billing, but his sister Josie’s dance act paid the family’s bills for a year. So, Cohan funneled his energies into writing skits and songs. It was during his teen years that he discovered his gift for writing. “Why Did Nellie Leave Her Home” (1893) became his first published melody. Soon he had a few minor song hits, and other vaudeville acts in search for new material were asking him to write skits. Between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one Cohan wrote 150 skits and by the age of nineteen Cohan’s father put his son in charge of the family’s skits. Josie gave up her solo act and the family reunited. Soon, the family became the highest paid vaudeville four act production. It was during this time that he started using the line that would become his signature throughout his life. In response to audiences’ request for encore bows he would say, “Ladies and gentlemen, my mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I assure you, I thank you.”
In 1901, Cohan stretched his writing talent even further when he wrote, composed, directed, and produced his first Broadway production The Governor’s Son. The Four Cohans were off vaudeville for a short stint on Broadway. The show saw little success on Broadway but became popular on tour. In 1899, Cohan married vaudeville comedian and singer Ethel Levey. While she often performed on her own, she occasionally joined the Cohan family in their performances. They had one daughter, Georgette, before their divorce in 1907. Within months he married Agnes Mary Nolan. Their marriage lasted until his death, and they had three children: Mary Helen, Helen Frances, and George Michael.
At age twenty-six, he began a friendship and producing partnership with Sam Harris. Their collaborations from 1904 to 1920 would build both their reputations and their fortunes in the theatre world and on Broadway during which they produced more than fifty comedies, plays, and revues. The production/management team also branched out to running theatres, and at one time they controlled five theatres in New York, including the George M. Cohan Theatre at Broadway and Forty-Second Street, and one in Chicago. They cashed in on the patriotic sentiments sweeping the country when their first production Little Johnny Jones (1904) became one of Broadway’s greatest hits. Cohan wrote the script and the songs and starred in the title role. The musical made songs like “Yankee Doodle Boy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway” famous. Cohan’s patriotism continued to pay off with his songwriting as well. During World War I he wrote the inspirational march, “Over There!” This piece and his song “It’s a Grand Old Flag,” (1905) received a Congressional Gold Medal under a special act of Congress dated June 29, 1936. The medal was presented to Cohan at the White House by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
By the end of the war, as written by John Kenrick on Musicals101.com, “George M. Cohan was now at the top of his profession, a position he relished for years to come. In an age with no electronic mass media, he was the first superstar of American show business, his name familiar from coast to coast” (www.musicals101.com/cohanbio3.htm).
In 1908 The Four Cohans made their final appearance together in The Yankee Prince, directed and co-produced by Cohan. His parents retired in 1912, and while Cohan also threatened to retire he continued to produce, act, and write more than ever. In 1919 Cohan’s popularity took a serious hit when he refused to join the Actors’ Equity Association. Cohan had a reputation as a fair producer, but he felt that acting was a profession and therefore above unionism. He lashed out against Equity, but Sam Harris led a delegation of producers who agreed to meet Equity’s demands. Rather than make problems for Harris, Cohan and Harris dissolved their partnership. For the rest of his life Cohan was the only actor on Broadway who worked under a non-Equity contract (Kenrick, Musicals101.com).
Despite his rift with the acting world, Cohan continued to produce successes like The Tavern (1920) and the musical Nellie Kelly (1922). However, Cohan was feeling the pressure of changing theatrical tastes. In 1933 he ignored his distaste for Hollywood and appeared in the musical film The Phantom President. However, he quickly returned to theatre where he received critical acclaim for his role of the father in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! (1933). In 1937 he teamed up with old friend Sam Harris when he played the role of Franklin D. Roosevelt in I’d Rather Be Right, produced by Harris. Roosevelt expressed his approval of the show, and Cohan, at the age of sixty, went on a grueling but successful tour with the show.
As Cohan’s health started to fail, Warner Brothers approached him about producing a movie about his life. Cohan approved former vaudeville performer James Cagney as the actor to portray him in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1932). Despite reservations, Cohan saw the show become a success before he died from his lingering illness on November 5, 1942.