George Michael Cohan (July 3, 1878 – November 5, 1942), known professionally as George M. Cohan, was an American entertainer, playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer and producer. Cohan was born in 1878 in Providence, Rhode Island, to Irish Catholic parents. A baptismal certificate from St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church indicated that he was born on July 3, but Cohan and his family always insisted that George had been “born on the Fourth of July!” George’s parents were traveling vaudeville performers, and he joined them on stage while still an infant, first as a prop, learning to dance and sing soon after he could walk and talk. He started as a child performer at age 8, first on the violin and then as a dancer. He was the fourth member of the family vaudeville act called The Four Cohans, which included his father Jeremiah “Jere” (Keohane) Cohan (1848–1917), mother Helen “Nellie” Costigan Cohan (1854–1928), and sister Josephine “Josie” Cohan Niblo (1876–1916).
As a child, Cohan and his family toured most of the year and spent summer vacations from the vaudeville circuit at his grandmother’s home in North Brookfield, Massachusetts, where Cohan befriended baseball player Connie Mack. In 1890, Cohan toured as the star of a show called Peck’s Bad Boy and then rejoined the family act; The Four Cohans mostly toured together from 1890 to 1901. He and his sister made their Broadway debut in 1893 in a sketch called The Lively Bootblack. Cohan began singing original skits (over 150 of them) and songs for the family act in both vaudeville and minstrel shows while in his teens. Soon he was writing professionally, selling his first songs to a national publisher in 1893. In 1901 he wrote, directed and produced his first Broadway musical, “The Governor’s Son”, for The Four Cohans. From 1899 to 1907, Cohan was married to Ethel Levey (1881–1955) and had a daughter Georgette. His first big Broadway hit in 1904 was the show Little Johnny Jones, which introduced his tunes “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy.” Cohan’s memories of his happy summers inspired his 1907 musical 50 Miles from Boston, which is set in North Brookfield and contains one of his most famous songs, “Harrigan.”
From 1904 to 1920, Cohan created and produced over fifty musicals, plays and revues on Broadway together with his friend Sam Harris. In 1908 he married Agnes Mary Nolan (1883–1972); they remained married until his death and had two daughters and a son. One of Cohan’s most innovative plays was a dramatization of the mystery Seven Keys to Baldpate in 1913. Others include Give My Regards to Broadway and the successful Going Up in 1917. Cohan became one of the leading Tin Pan Alley songwriters, publishing upwards of 300 original songs noted for their catchy melodies and clever lyrics. His major hit songs included “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway,” “Mary Is a Grand Old Name,” “The Warmest Baby in the Bunch,” “Life’s a Funny Proposition After All,” “I Want To Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune,” “You Won’t Do Any Business If You Haven’t Got a Band,” “The Small Town Gal,” “I’m Mighty Glad I’m Living, That’s All,” “That Haunting Melody,” “Always Leave Them Laughing When You Say Goodbye”, and America’s most popular World War I song “Over There.” In 1914, Cohan became one of the founding members of ASCAP.
Cohan dropped out of acting for some years after his 1919 dispute with Actors’ Equity Association. In 1925, he published his autobiography, Twenty Years on Broadway and the Years It Took To Get There. Cohan appeared in 1930 in a revival of his tribute to vaudeville and his father, The Song and Dance Man. In 1932, Cohan starred in a dual role as a cold, corrupt politician and his charming, idealistic campaign double in the Hollywood musical film The Phantom President. He made only one other sound film, Gambling (1934), based on his own 1929 play and shot in New York City. When he returned to his grandmother’s hometown in the cast of Ah, Wilderness! in 1934, he told a reporter, “I’ve knocked around everywhere, but there’s no place like North Brookfield.” On June 29, 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to World War I morale, in particular the songs “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There.”Cohan earned acclaim as a serious actor in the role of a song-and-dance President Roosevelt in Rodgers and Hart’s musical I’d Rather Be Right (1937). The same year, he reunited with Harris to produce a play called Fulton of Oak Falls, starring Cohan. His final play, The Return of the Vagabond (1940), featured a young Celeste Holm in the cast.
In 1940, Judy Garland played the title role in a film version of his 1922 musical Little Nellie Kelly. In 1942, a musical biopic of Cohan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, was released, and James Cagney’s performance in the title role earned the Best Actor Academy Award. The film was privately screened for Cohan as he battled the last stages of abdominal cancer. He died of cancer at the age of 64 on November 5, 1942, at his Manhattan apartment on Fifth Avenue, surrounded by family and friends. His funeral was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York and was attended by thousands of people, including five governors of New York, two mayors of New York City and the Postmaster General. Although Cohan is mostly remembered for his songs, he became an early pioneer in the development of the “book musical”, using his engaging libretti to bridge the gaps between drama and music. Cohan wrote numerous Broadway musicals and straight plays in addition to contributing material to shows written by others—more than 50 in all. A statue of Cohan in Times Square in New York City commemorates his contributions to American musical theatre.
My collection includes the following work by George M. Cohan:
Little Johnny Jones (1904): Give My Regards to Broadway
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources