George M. Cohan was an American entertainer, songwriter, actor, playwright, dancer and producer considered to be ‘the father of American Musical Comedy’. Having been born into a family of entertainers, George began his career early on—he was playing the violin and performing as a dancer by the time he was eight. He, along with his parents and sister formed the family vaudeville act known as "The Four Cohans." As a child, he featured in many acts and plays, and began to write his own skits and songs in his teens. Soon he was writing, directing and producing his own Broadway musicals. He became one of the leading popular songwriters of his day known for his witty lyrics and catchy melodies. Young George was known to be highly temperamental though he matured with age. He met the Broadway producer Sam Harris and the two formed a successful partnership that would continue for many years, and the first play they put together, ‘Little Johnny Jones’ became one of Broadway’s greatest hits. His plays were characterized by action and speed and he was credited for energizing the American stage. Cohan was epitomized as “the greatest single figure the American theatre ever produced—as a player, playwright, actor, composer and producer."
Childhood & Early Life
George Cohan was born as the second child of Jeremiah Cohan and Helen Costigan. His parents were traveling vaudeville performers, and he was taught to sing and dance as soon as he could walk and talk.
He received little formal education as a result of his family’s constant traveling, but it is apparent that he had received some training in reading, writing and mathematics as is evident from his later achievements.
He started as a child performer when at the age of eight he played violin and performed as a dancer. He was the fourth member to join the family vaudeville act, ‘The Four Cohans’ which included his father, mother and sister.
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‘The Four Cohans’ toured all over the U.S from 1890 to 1901. He made his Broadway debut in 1893 along with his sister in a sketch called ‘The Lively Bootblack’. It was during this time that Cohan coined his famous curtain speech: "My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.”
During the early 1900s, he met and formed a long-term partnership with playwright Sam Harris. Together they produced several musicals, plays and revues on Broadway including the highly appreciated ‘Little Johnny Jones’ (1904).
Cohan was very successful as a playwright and entertainer; his shows ran simultaneously in as many as five theatres. His ‘Seven Keys to Baldpate’ in 1913 cemented his reputation as a serious playwright. The play created some controversy, but became a bit hit.
The three-act musical comedy ‘Going Up’, co-produced by Cohan and Sam Harris in 1917 became a smash hit. The same year, he wrote his song ‘Over There’ which became very popular with the U.S soldiers during both world wars.
In 1919, he became involved in a dispute with the Actors’ Equity Association following which he stopped acting for sometime. The dispute also led to the dissolution of his partnership with Sam Harris.
He starred in the 1932 film, ‘The Phantom President’, a fictional story of American presidential candidates, with Claudette Colbert and Jimmy Durante in which he played a double role.
His role in Eugene O’Neill’s comedy film, ‘Ah, Wilderness!’(1933) was hailed as his finest performance and earned him critical appreciation as a serious actor.
He starred as Franklin Roosevelt in the political satire, ‘I'd Rather Be Right’ in 1937. The same year he reunited with his erstwhile partner, Sam Harris to co-produce the play ‘Fulton of Oak Falls’.
One of his biggest successes was the musical play, ‘Little Johnny Jones’ (1904) which was co-produced with Sam Harris. The play based on the real life story of American jockey Tod Sloan, included Cohan’s songs ‘Give My Regards to Broadway’ and ‘The Yankee Doodle Boy’ which also became smash hits.
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His play ‘Seven Keys to baldpate’ (1913) is his most popular play, famous for the innovative dramatization of Earl Derr Biggers’s novel. He also produced a silent film of the same name based on the play in 1917.
The 1917 musical comedy, ‘Going Up’, based on a play by James Montgomery, tells the story of a writer who turns into an aviator to win the hand of the girl he loves. The play was a super hit and was later made into a film.
Awards & Achievements
President Franklin Roosevelt presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal in 1936 for his contributions to World War I morale, especially for the songs ‘You're a Grand Old Flag’ and ‘Over There’. He was the first person in any artistic field to be honoured with this medal.
Personal Life & Legacy
Cohan married Ethel Levey, an actress and dancer, in 1899. She had joined ‘The Four Cohan’ when his sister left to get married. The couple had a daughter and later divorced.
He married Agnes Mary Nolan in 1908 and remained married until his death. They had three children.
He suffered from cancer during his later years, and died in 1942 at the age of 64.
A movie based on his life and music, ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’, was made in 1942 in which James Cagney portrayed his character.
His autobiography, ‘Twenty Years on Broadway and the Years it took to Get There’, was published in 1925.
Even though he had acted in some films, he always had a deep dislike for Hollywood.
He is buried next to friend and business partner, Sam Harris.
Cohan’s bronze statue was erected in Times Square at Broadway in 1959 to commemorate his contributions to American musical theatre.