George M. Cohan

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About this artist

An early 20th century Broadway composer/lyricist, producer, playwright, and epitomic song-and-dance man with a long history on the vaudeville stage, George M. Cohan is best-remembered for rousing standards like “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” and the World War I anthem “Over There.” The former two songs both originally appeared in his 1904 Broadway musical Little Johnny Jones, in which the composer also starred. Two years later, another enduring standard, “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” debuted in his stage musical George Washington, Jr. Published in 1917 at the height of the First World War, “Over There,” with its assurances that “the Yanks are coming,” rose in popularity through recordings by Billy Murray, Nora Bayes, Enrico Caruso, and others, and saw a resurgence during World War II. James Cagney won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Cohan in the 1942 biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy, which opened in theaters sixth months before Cohan’s death in November of that year.
Born on the third of July, 1878 in Providence, Rhode Island, George Michael Cohan got his start in show business as a young child. He had already studied violin and dance and starred in a touring vehicle for popular print character Peck’s Bad Boy by the time he began performing with his parents and older sister as vaudeville act the Four Cohans around the age of 12. He and his sister Josephine (“Josie”) made their Broadway debuts in a sketch together in 1893. That year, Cohan sold some of his songs to a national publisher for the first time. In the meantime, the Four Cohans continued to tour on and off through 1901. During these years, Cohan popularized his curtain speech, “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.”
George M. Cohan premiered his first Broadway musical, The Governor’s Son, in 1901. Written, directed, and produced by Cohan, it starred the Four Cohans. He had his first big hit three years later with Little Johnny Jones, in which he also starred. It included the soon-to-be standards “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy.” Another Cohan standard, “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” appeared in his 1906 Broadway musical George Washington, Jr. Many of his other showtunes were hits of the era, including “Life’s a Funny Proposition After All” (1904), “Always Leave Them Laughing When You Say Goodbye” (1904), “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway” (1906), and “That Haunting Melody,” which was recorded by Al Jolson in 1911. In 1914, Cohan become one of the founding members of the performance-rights organization ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers).
His patriotic World War I anthem, “Over There,” was a massive hit upon its publication in 1917 and was used as a recruitment tool by the U.S. Army. Following a debut recording by Billy Murray, it became a hit for Nora Bayes and, in 1918, Enrico Caruso. The year 1917 also saw Cohan’s film debut in Broadway Jones, playing the title role. He only appeared in two more films (1917′s Seven Keys to Baldpate and 1918′s Hit-the-Trail Holiday) before waiting for the advent of sound technology for his return. By 1920, Cohan had written and produced over 50 Broadway shows (including musicals, plays, and revues), with many running consecutively in multiple theaters and becoming hits overseas in London. A fall-out with Actor’s Equity Association (in which Cohan unpopularly opposed a strike) prompted the showman to stop acting in 1919, though he continued to write, compose, and produce. His autography, Twenty Years on Broadway and the Years It Took to Get There, was published in 1925.
In 1930, Cohan returned to the stage in a revival of The Song and Dance Man, his tribute to vaudeville and to his father. He then also returned to Hollywood, starring in the 1932 musical comedy and political satire The Phantom President. He only acted in one more film, playing the lead in the 1934 crime drama Gambling. By then in his mid-fifties, Cohan moved in and out of retirement.
On May 1, 1940, Cohan became the first member of an artistic field to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. It was presented to him by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his contributions to World War I morale. “Over There” enjoyed a resurgence during World War II, and the 1942 musical biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy starred James Cagney in an Oscar-winning performance as Cohan. Nominated for eight Academy Awards in all, it was also a Best Picture nominee. George M. Cohan died of cancer in New York on November 5, 1942, sixth months after the film’s release. His survivors included his wife of 34 years, Agnes Mary Nolan, daughters Mary Cohan Ronkin and Helen Cohan Carola, and son George Michael Cohan, Jr. All three children were professional performers.
In 1959, a memorial committee, first headed by Irving Berlin and then by Oscar Hammerstein II, oversaw the installation of an eight-foot bronze statue of Cohan at Broadway and 46th Street in Times Square. In 1968 and 1969, Joel Grey starred as Cohan in George M!, a Broadway play about his life. Cohan was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, alongside a class that also included John Philip Sousa, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Woody Guthrie, among others. ~ Marcy Donelson