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Born on the Fourth of July?
George M. Cohan at the age of 10, with the violin he so
George Michael Cohan became the stuff theatrical legends are made
of, so it shouldn't be surprising that he instigated a few of those legends, including one surrounding his birth date.
Cohan's baptismal certificate -- which is his only written birth record -- verifies that he was
born in Providence, Rhode Island on July
However, Cohan's family unfailingly insisted
that George and his country shared birthdays on the 4th. Although noted
for their honesty, the Cohans certainly would have found it hard to resist the
publicity value of a performer being "born on the Fourth of July."
While it may seem silly to
begrudge a dead man a charming piece of his legend, odds are that he was
actually born on the 3rd.
the second child of Jeremiah and Helen Costigan Cohan, better known as Jerry
and Nellie. These New Englanders of Irish descent interrupted
their endless tour of the variety circuit so Nellie could give birth in her hometown
of Providence just as she had done when her daughter Josephine was born
two years before.
When the time came to get back to touring, Jerry and Nellie took the children
along. Although George got little formal schooling, his
later accomplishments prove that he developed a more than passing mastery of reading,
writing and arithmetic. He certainly got a first-hand perspective on geography,
spending his childhood traveling perpetually around the United States. Although George
got his start as a performer playing the violin in theatre
pit bands, his aim was to appear on stage. When he was eleven,
he and Josie joined his parents in a full family song and dance act.
The Four Cohans
A formal portrait of The Cohan clan, taken in
There were hundreds of family acts in vaudeville, but few as closely knit as The
Four Cohans. They often worked on the prestigious but exhausting
B.F. Keith circuit,
grinding through an exhausting round of four to six performances a day. Their only breaks
were summer layoffs with relatives in New England, but even these were usually interrupted
for engagements at various summer resorts.
A creature of the theater, George grew up in a backstage world full of color
and emotion. In boyhood, he was not shy about letting people know his opinions
on anything, particularly anything related to "the show business." He had
the jarring habit of telling off stage hands, fellow performers and theater
managers. Seeing others take advantage of his naturally easy-going
father only fed George's fire. Despite frequent warnings that adults
did not appreciate his behavior, George kept at it until he was generally
known as a backstage trouble maker.
Young Cohan learned that reputations could be dangerous when the
family appeared in a stage adaptation of the popular novel
Peck's Bad Boy (1891). George reveled in the title role, playing a
clever roughneck who could "lick any kid in town." He was such a success that
a mob of boys from the opening matinee audience attacked
him at the stage door. As Nellie tended to her son's bruises, the company manager
warned that young Cohan would have to face that kind of response after every
performance. What boy wouldn't be anxious to prove he was tougher than Peck's bad
boy? Rather than give up a choice role, George learned to live with the fights
for the better part of a year -- then his family returned to vaudeville.
Jerry insisted that The Four Cohans were a "road act," the sort that
played well all across the country but would never please the hardnosed critics in
New York City. So the act traveled to every corner of the US, by-passing
Manhattan year after year. But Broadway was the place to be in those days, the
"big apple" that every self-respecting performer wanted to take a shot
At age 14, George got tired of waiting for his chance. When his father bluntly refused
yet again to take the act to New York, George bought a train ticket and prepared to run
off on his own. Thanks to a kindly station master, Jerry got wind of
this plan. Instead of reacting with anger, he told
his relieved son that it would be better if the whole family ran away together.
He booked the family for a New York debut that fall. All should have gone well,
but the family's old friend-nemesis turned George's dream engagement into a
The Four Cohans capering in a now-forgotten vaudeville
The Four Cohan's made their Manhattan debut at B.F. Keith's new Union Square Theater in
1893. Keith needed to fill out the opening bill, so he ordered that the Cohans perform
separately. This put the whole family at a disadvantage, especially George. The
furious teenager made such a disruptive fuss that the theater manager almost fired him, then relegated
him to the dreaded opening spot on the bill. Audiences still finding their seats (or
reading newspapers) traditionally ignored the first act, and George's solo song and dance
act was no exception. In vaudeville parlance, he "died" at every performance, four shows a day. Adding
to his chagrin, Josie's solo dance act was such a success that it paid the family's bills
for the rest of the year.
This event marked a turning point for George. It taught him that emotions
could be dangerous. From this point forward, he usually kept his deepest
emotions to himself, or channeled them into his plays and songs. In his vast
archive at the Museum of the City of New York, there are no personal letters or
written recollections of his feelings -- save for one scribbled poem deriding
Hollywood film makers. There would be one time in later years that Cohan would
let anger get the better of him in a public dispute, and the results would
confirm his worst fears about the price of emotional expression.
As Josie became the toast of New York, George was unable to find bookings.
But he made good us of his idle hours by writing songs. "Why Did Nellie Leave Her
Home?" became his first published melody late in 1893. Encouraged, he haunted the
publishing houses of Tin Pan Alley, and soon had a string of minor hits, beginning with
"Venus My Shining Love."
Vaudeville star May Irwin made Cohan's bouncy "Hot Tamale Alley"
a favorite, and other vaudevillians sang Cohan's
hit "You're the Warmest Baby in the Bunch." At the same time,
performers in search of fresh material were after George to write new
skits and one act plays. This was enough to
make Jerry recognize his son's talents. Sometime around 1895, he put George in
charge of the family act. While it must have been difficult for a veteran
entertainer to defer to a teenager, it was a brilliant idea. Josie happily gave
up solo performing, and the reunited family act began its ascent to stardom.
The Four + Ethel
George was only seventeen, but his songs, skits and shrewd management quickly
brought The Cohans greater recognition. They became the most highly paid
four-act in vaudeville, eventually earning $1000 a week a tremendous
sum for the 1890s. Vaudeville impresario B.F. Keith realized that a genuinely
devoted family performing together had an irresistible appeal, and he now booked
them at his best houses. When audiences demanded extra bows, George responded with
a one-line curtain speech that was supposedly invented by a comedian spoofing
the family's reputation for closeness. It became Cohan's lifelong trademark
"Ladies and gentlemen, my mother thanks you, my
father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you!"
B.F. Keith's dictatorial style eventually became more than the Cohans could bear.
When the family did not get proper billing at an important engagement, an enraged George
swore that no Cohan would ever work for Keith again. Since Keith's office controlled the
bookings for every major vaudeville theater
in the country, the Cohans had no choice but to make the jump to the legitimate
Ethel Levey and George M. Cohan soon after
their wedding in 1899.
George and his family were on tour developing two of his sketches into full length
musicals when he met and fell in love with actress Ethel Levey. A talented
vaudeville singer and comedienne, she was George's match in temperament and ego.
Jerry and Nellie were not thrilled, but they knew there was little point in
arguing with George when his mind was set on something.
After conducting most of their courtship by mail, George and Ethel married in 1899.
She continued performing on her own, joining the Cohans for several engagements. George
and Ethel's daughter Georgette was born in 1900, just in time for her parents to
star in their first Broadway musical.
On to: Part II
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