George M. Cohan

Inducted: 1965
Born: 1878
Died: 1942

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

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. 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 statue 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.

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 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.

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 musicals 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. Among the stars who played the Grand Opera House were Cohan, Lionel Barrymore, Arthur Byron, George M. Cohan, Constance Collier, Katharine Cornell, Dudley Digges, Leon Errol, Douglas Fairbanks, Walter Hampden, Miriam Hopkins, Allan Jones, Bert Lahr, Eva Le Gallienne, Canada Lee, the Marx Brothers, Chester Morris, Effie Shannon, and Ethel Waters.

Many of his shows were adapted to film, including It Pays to Advertise and Going Up. In 1940, Judy Garland played the title role in a film version of his 1922 musical Little Nellie Kelly. Cohan’s mystery play Seven Keys to Baldpate was first filmed in 1916 and has been remade seven times, most recently as House of the Long Shadows (1983), starring Vincent Price. Cohan’s 1920 play The Meanest Man in the World was filmed in 1943 with Jack Benny. Other films included Gambling, The Phantom President, Hit-The-Trail Holiday, Seven Keys to Baldpate, and Broadway Jones.

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 Oct. 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 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 Nov. 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. Standing on the southern end of the triangle between 45th and 47th Street, opposite Times Square, the inscription appropriately quotes his most famous song, “Give My Regards to Broadway, ” delivering George M. Cohan’s message to Broadway forever.

Additional Reading:

George M. Cohan, The Man Who Owned Broadway, John McCabe, Doubleday.
Twenty Years on Broadway and the Years It Took to Get There, George M. Cohan, Harper Brothers.
George M. Cohan In His Own Words, George M. Cohan, Samuel French Publishing.
George M. Cohan: Prince of the American Theater, by Ward Morehouse, J.B. Lippincott.

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