|photo by Alice Lum|
George M. Cohan was born on July 3, 1878—one day before the Fourth of July—with musical theater in his veins. At a very early age he joined his family in their vaudeville act, “The Four Cohans,” that included his father, mother and sister.
By his teens, when the talented boy was not wowing audiences with his singing, dancing and acting, he was composing songs and plays. In 1901 at the age of 23 he produced his first play in New York, The Governor’s Son. Undaunted by its luke-warm reception, he followed-up with Running for Office in 1903. The 20-member cast included the all four of the Cohans, and George introduced 15 new songs. The manager of the Fourteenth Street Theatre touted it as “a real novelty.”
|One song from The Governor's Son had the shocking title "Never Breathe A World of This To Mother [Father Who's Your Lady Friend?] -- from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Like The Governor’s Son, Running for Office was doomed to fade into theatrical oblivion.
Then the following year George produced Little Johnny Jones. Things were about to change for the 26-year old George M. Cohan.
As with his earlier projects, along with writing the play Cohan was his own song-writer and lyricist. Among the 16 new songs in Little Johnny Jones were two standouts—“Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “Yankee Doodle Boy.” The latter foreshadowed the patriotic songs Cohan would pen during World War I and which would become his hallmark.
|One page from an advertising pamphlet for Little Johnny Jones promised "The prettiest girls and the funniest play that ever departed from Old Broadway." -- from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Little Johnny Jones was a hit with Broadway audiences as well as on the road. Each time Cohan took the play to another city, he was pulled back to New York. On August 1, 1905 The New York Times noted “George M. Cohan has come back to the New York Theatre with ‘Little Johnny Jones.’ Seven times already has this musical comedy been in New York, and this is its second visit to the New York Theatre.”
While his hit play was running, Cohan was busy working on a new musical. In 1905 he simultaneously produced Forty-five Minutes from Broadway; and on February 11, 1906 The Times reported “George M. Cohan, who made the unique record of twelve engagements in New York in his own play, ‘Little Johnny Jones,’ in the eighteen months past, will return to this city to-morrow evening and present his new musical play ‘George Washington, Jr.,’ at the Herald Square Theatre."
The newspaper noted that “Like ‘Little Johnny Jones,’ Mr. Cohan wrote the book, lyrics, and music of ‘George Washington, Jr.,’ staged the piece himself, and plays the principal role.” Cohan added to his list of patriotic songs with his new production. “Mr. Cohan sings two new patriotic songs, ‘The Grand Old Rag,’ [later renamed "You’re a Grand Old Flag”] and a topical song, ‘If Washington Came to Life.’”
|photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library|
By 1920 Cohan had written and produced more than 50 musicals, comedies, revues and dramas. With the United States' entry into World War I, his patriotic fervor, expressed as music, detonated. In 1917, shortly after hearing that the United States had declared war on Germany, he wrote “Over There.” The tune became the virtual rallying song of Americans throughout the war; and was later resurrected during World War II.
|from the collection of the New York Public Library|
In February 1919 Cohan played the leading role in his A Prince There Was. In its review, The New-York Tribune wrote less about the play than about its author and principal actor. “No one is particularly concerned to find out whether Mr. Cohan is as good an actor as he is an acute and successful playwright and author. As a matter of fact he is. Accomplishments seldom come singly…He keeps in continuous operation a three-ring circus of which he is the sole performer. Thus in one ring he is busily pyramiding the plays he is writing, in another he is juggling chaotic bits of the new musical piece he is producing and in the third he lightly trapezes into the performance of ‘A Prince There Was.’ These three rings cannot be kept going simultaneously, of course, but the successions are effected with the smooth continuity of a protean artist.”
|Cohan's 1910 production The Man Who Owns Broadway included this lavish chorus scene -- photograph by Byron & Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWE24X85&SMLS=1&RW=1366&RH=579|
One of the three rings of the Cohan circus was about to disappear.
Later that year the Actors’ Equity Association struck the Broadway theaters. Cohan opposed the strike which sought restrictions which would hamper his appearing in his own productions. Although while the strike continued he donated $100,000 to finance the Actors’ Retirement Fund, many theatrical professionals never forgave him. He announced his retirement from acting that year.
The Sun opined on November 30, 1919 “As actor, playwright, dancer and singer he has enjoyed all the success that might come to any man. And it is as playwright, in such work as ‘Get Rich Quick Wallingford’ and in ‘Seven Keys to Bald Pate’ that he has shown ability of a fine order…Mr. Cohan’s present retirement will never be regretted if it affords him the time to write plays as good as the best of those he has produced in the past.”
On June 29, 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt added to Cohan’s many distinctions when he presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal for his patriotic songs that bolstered morale during World War I. The song-writer was the first person in an artistic profession to receive the honor.
As he aged and his theatrical and musical successes continued, George M. Cohan was the embodiment of Broadway. Throughout the decades he represented the profession at the funerals of its greatest names—Barrymore, Belasco and Gershwin among them. In 1941 Broadway feared Cohan’s own funeral was imminent.
On October 18 he underwent an emergency operation for “an abdominal condition.” The 63-year old was reported to be “gravely ill.” That he was suffering from stomach cancer was not publicized for months. While he was hospitalized, Warner Bros. was finishing up its musical spectacle based on Cohan’s life, Yankee Doodle Dandy. Cohan was played by James Cagney.
The film was released in 1942. George Cohan was by now severely ill and a private screening was held for him. Reportedly his comment on Cagney’s portrayal was “My God, what an act to follow.”
Later that year, at 5:00 a.m. on November 6, “George M. Cohan, the Yankee Doodle Dandy of the American stage who gave his country its greatest song of the first World War, died,” as reported by The Times. The newspaper called him “The great song and dance man—perhaps the greatest in Broadway history.”
The President of the United States sent a telegram to Cohan’s widow saying “A beloved figure is lost to our national life in the passing of your devoted husband. He will be mourned by millions whose lives were brightened and whose burdens were eased by his genius as a fun maker and as a dispeller of gloom.”
Two days later St. Patrick’s Cathedral was overwhelmed by the crowds at Cohan’s funeral. “Four thousand persons including many standees filled the edifice during the high mass of requiem. Two thousand more, according to police estimates, gathered outside the cathedral, leaving the steps clear for the long procession of honorary pallbearers,” said The New York Times.
Among the dignitaries in the church were five Governors, two Mayors, the Postmaster General, and the former secretary to President Woodrow Wilson. The honorary pallbearers included Irving Berlin, Eddie Cantor, Frank Crowninshield, Sol Bloom, Brooks Atkinson, Rube Goldberg, Walter Huston, George Jessel, Connie Mack, Joseph McCarthy, Eugene O’Neill, Sigmund Romberg, Lee Shubert, Jerry Vogel and Fred M. Waring among many others.
Before long a committee was organized to memorialize Cohan on Broadway. On June 26, 1956 committee chairman Oscar Hammerstein announced the plans. The city agreed to improve the block-long triangular Duffy Square and organizers were already collecting subscriptions towards the $75,000 statue. Hammerstein announced that the base of the statue would bear the inscription “Give My Regards to Broadway.”
The Times noted that “Irving Berlin, who suggested the inscription, already has pledged $10,000, Mr. Hammerstein said.”
Georg John Lober was given the commission to sculpt the statue and architect Otto Langman worked on the granite base. (The pair simultaneously worked on the Hans Christian Anderson statue in Central Park.)
|photo by Alice Lum|
By November 21, 1957 when ground was broken the cost of the statue and base had risen to $100,000. On September 11, 1959, following the last Broadway curtain’s drop that evening, the statue was finally unveiled. “Ten thousand of the old throng, Broadwayites, entertainers, policemen and theatre-goers jammed into the area around Broadway and Forty-sixth Street for the unveiling of a bronze statue eight feet tall at the south end of Duffy Square,” reported The Times the following day.