Born on the third of July

By Dr. Scott Molloy

If George M. Cohan had been more truthful in Yankee Doodle Dandy, he would have reported his birth date as July 3, and not the “born on the Fourth of July” claim reported in his song.  Admittedly, his truthfulness would have reduced its punch. A birth certificate from St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church on Hope Street, Providence, indicates that Cohan was born on July 3, 1878. His family maintained he was born the following day, making him a Fourth of July baby, just like the “Yankee doodle boy” of his song. To support its claim of inaccuracy, the family pointed out that the baptismal certificate gave the wrong first name of his mother. There is no question about the location of his birth at 536 Wickenden Street in the Fox Point neighborhood of Providence, but there is a serious dispute about the date of his arrival.

A life-size bronze statue of George M. Cohan, called the greatest single figure the American theatre ever produced as a playwright, actor, composer, lyricist, singer, dancer, and theatrical producer, sits on the corner of Wickenden and Governor streets in the Fox Point neighborhood of Providence. A plaque on the front of the base is inscribed:

Son of Providence

Born July 3, 1878 on Wickenden Street

Father of the American Musical Comedy

As a rule, George ignored bad reviews, even when the criticism was justified. However, a 1905 review by the Providence Journal’s Frederick H. Young got George so upset he vowed never to play the city again. Young described “Little Johnny Jones” as “uneven,” “ill-assorted,” and “commonplace.” Worst of all, he made fun of George’s nasal singing and speaking voice. Young defended his comments many years later by saying he had no personal grudge against Mr. Cohan. He just didn’t think the show, and George’s performance, was worth twice the admission price of The Governor’s Son, which he had seen in Providence – and enjoyed, giving it a glowing review – a few years earlier. But Cohan was true to his word, and Providence was removed from the itinerary of all Cohan and Harris productions, with city and state becoming the occasional butt of jokes in several Cohan plays.

After learning that there was no statue to honor Cohan in Rhode Island, Sy Dill, a New Yorker who moved to Providence in 2003, formed a George Cohan Committee, which included Rhode Island Hall of Fame President Dr. Patrick T. Conley. “Cohan represented America, but he was born here in Providence. You can’t deny the importance of that,” Dill said. Conley, at a June 2011 fundraiser to pay for the statue held at his Fabre Line Club and sponsored by the Heritage Hall of Fame, observed that “Cohan and his talented family epitomized the rise of the Providence Irish Catholic community to a position of respectability, prominence, and influence.” Robert Shure, the same sculptor who designed Providence’s Irish Famine Memorial a few years earlier, created the Cohan statue unveiled in the summer of 2009. The figure shows Cohan raising his hat dapperly as though he is about to take a bow. The committee also created an annual George M. Cohan for Excellence in Art & Culture in Rhode Island. His historic house, which Broadway legend Eddie Dowling, Rhode Island’s other Broadway legend, called “a national treasure,” was demolished after the City Planning Commission told Mayor Joseph Doorley and the City Council in a terse February 28, 1958, letter that “proper recognition of the memory of Mr. Cohan could be achieved by means other than the preservation of this structure. 

At an early age, Cohan joined his family in their vaudeville act, “The Four Cohans,” which included his father, Jeremiah, his mother, Helen, and his sister, Josephine. Cohan joined them on stage while still an infant, learning to dance and sing before he could walk. The Four Cohans toured together from 1890 to 1901. During those years, Cohan originated his famous curtain speech: “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.” The family spent summers at his grandmother’s North Brookville, Massachusetts home. His memories of those happy summers inspired his 1907 musical 50 Miles From Boston, which is set in North Brookfield and introduces one of his first hit songs, “Harrigan.” 

 While in his teens, Cohan began writing original skits and songs for the family act in both vaudeville and minstrel shows. In 1901, he wrote, directed, and produced his first Broadway musical, The Governor’s Son. His first 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 wrote over 50 shows and published more than 300 songs during his lifetime, noted for their catchy melodies and clever lyrics. His shows ran simultaneously in as many as five theatres.

 While Cohan is remembered primarily for his songs, he became an early pioneer in developing the “book musical,” using his engaging libretti to bridge the gaps between drama and music. He used dance not merely to razzle-dazzle but to advance the plot. In 1912, he and his partner, Sam H. Harris, acquired Chicago’s Grand Opera House and renamed it “George M. Cohan’s Opera House.

On June 29, 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt presented Cohan with the Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to World War I, particularly for the songs “Over There” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” Cohan was the first person in an artistic profession to receive the honor. He underwent an emergency operation for stomach cancer on October 18, 1942. While he was hospitalized, Warner Bros. was finishing up its musical spectacle based on Cohan’s life, Yankee Doodle Dandy. When the film was premiered, Cohan was too ill to attend. A private screening was held for him, and when evaluating Cagney’s performance, Cohan said, “My God, what an act to follow.” James Cagney won an Oscar for his role as Cohan

 On November 6, 1942, The New York Times reported, “George M. Cohan, the Yankee Doodle Dandy of the American stage who gave his country its greatest song of the First World War, died.” The newspaper called him “The great song and dance man – perhaps the greatest in Broadway history.” 

 In 1959, Tony award-winning lyricist and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II organized a project to erect a bronze statue in Cohan’s honor in New York City’s Times Square. It has stood for decades, the only statue of a theater performer in all of Manhattan. The statue gives Broadway the regards of George M. Cohan forever. 

Dr. D. Scott Molloy is a director of the Heritage Harbor Foundation

Scroll to Top