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All Aboard for Broadway
George and Jerry Cohan face off in
George Washington Jr. George tailored many of his early musicals to
showcase his family.
In 1900, most Americans sincerely believed there was no problem that a little
"Yankee know-how" and a dash of common "American" decency couldn't
fix. George M. Cohan's writing reflected this jingoistic exuberance, expressing it as
no other playwright or songwriter had. At first, New York critics did not know what to
make of his shows, but the American public swiftly embraced him as one of their own.
Cohan's first Broadway musical, The Governor's Son (1901), was
a near miss. It was an expanded version of one his vaudeville sketches,
involving the comic misadventures of several guests at a country resort a
woman (Josie) in search of her runaway husband, two older battling newlyweds
(Jerry and Nellie), and a vivacious girl (Ethel) competing with a widow for the
attentions of a Governor's son (George -- of course).
From this show onwards, George invariably cast himself as an impertinent
quipster with a heart of gold his idea of the perfect American for the
new century. Cohan's dialogue relied heavily on vaudeville-style
WIDOW: I hope to see more of you!
GEORGE: I'm going in bathing tomorrow.
Poor Broadway reviews sent The Governor's Son packing after an unimpressive 32
performances. However, provincial audiences delighted in this show's simple, wholesome
humor. The Cohans trouped it around the country for two profitable years.
Running for Office (1903) also failed in New York before
turning a profit on the road -- again starring the Cohans. Then George was
introduced to Sam Harris, a gambler
and boxing promoter who combined
a solid business sense with a passion for the theater. Cohan and Harris formed a
partnership that became something of a Broadway legend in its own right.
Little Johnny Jones
George and Ethel Levey in
Little Johnny Jones (1904).
With its patriotic yet sentimental story of an American jockey who is falsely
accused of throwing the English Darby, Little Johnny Jones (1904) was the
breakout hit George had long hoped for. Yankee honesty eventually wins
out as the jockey wins vindication as well as the heart of the all-American girl
he loves. George wrote the script and the songs, produced, directed, and starred in the
title role. There were tailor-made roles for all of the Cohans, with Ethel cast as
George's love interest. The score was Cohan's best to date, including several
memorable hits. In "Yankee Doodle Boy," jockey Cohan celebrated a few
things that he and the fictional Jones supposedly had in common
I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy,
A Yankee Doodle do or die,
A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam's,
Born on the Fourth of July.
I've got a Yankee Doodle sweetheart.
She's my Yankee Doodle joy.
Yankee doodle came to London
Just to ride the ponies.
I am a Yankee Doodle Boy.
In "Give My Regards to Broadway," the disgraced Johnny, forced to remain
in England and defend his reputation, asks his friends boarding an ocean liner
bound for home to
Give my regards to Broadway.
Remember me to Herald Square.
Tell all the gang at Forty-Second Street
That I will soon be there.
Whisper of how I'm yearning
To mingle with the old-time throng.
Give my regards to old Broadway
And tell them I'll be there 'ere long.
After the liner pulled away, it reappeared on the distant horizon, an electrified
miniature passing across the stage backdrop. When a flare from the ship (an innovative
stage effect in 1904) proclaims that documents proving the jockey's innocence had been
secured, Cohan broke into a joyous victory dance.
Cohan changed the definition of a Broadway leading man. Tap dancing with a lightness
that seemed to resist gravity while still looking
manly, he broke out of the invisible box that had long restricted male dancers
in the theatre. Cohan's dance routines covered the whole stage, even sending him
up the side of the proscenium for back flips.
There was no other performer, songwriter or playwright like Cohan at the time, and some
critics were not sure how to react to his openhearted combination of catchy melody
and patriotic sentiment. Audiences loved him. Little Johnny Jones made two return
trips to New York during its triumphant year-long tour. George M. Cohan was finally
recognized as one of Broadway's top stars, a distinction he relished (despite occasional
denials) for the rest of his life. With his dream of stardom fulfilled,
he set his sights even higher. As he reputedly told a friend
"I'll never be happy now until I own a part of Broadway.
Just a little part, mind you. The top part."
- as quoted by John McCabe, George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway
(Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1973), p. 81.
Fay Templeton sings about her mother
"Mary" as Victor Moore listens in 45 Minutes from
Theatre owner E.L. Erlanger asked Cohan to write a
show for musical comedy star Fay Templeton.
The result was 45 Minutes From Broadway (1906), in which a suburban
housemaid gives up an inheritance so she won't lose the
big city smart-aleck she loves. Templeton co-starred with newcomer
Victor Moore, who began his
long reign as one of Broadway's favorite comic actors. Cohan's
wisecrack-rich dialogue still echoed his years in vaudeville
BURNS: How would you like to fall in with a millionaire?
MARY: I wouldn't mind if I had on a bathing suit.
But the overall story line had genuine charm, and the score included "So Long
Mary," a catchy title tune, and the perennial favorite
"Mary's a Grand Old Name"
For it is Mary, Mary,
Plain as any name can be.
But with propriety
Society will say "Marie."
But it was Mary, Mary,
Long before the fashions came.
And there is something there
That sounds so square.
It's a grand old name.
While that show was en route to Broadway, Cohan was already working on a new
vehicle for his family minus Josie, who was pursuing her solo dance career.
George Washington Jr. (1906) featured George as the son of a U.S.
senator (Jerry), refusing his father's efforts to marry him off to a titled
English woman because he loves a simple Southern girl (Ethel). Aside from
some political pot shots ("The senate is the finest body of men
that money can buy."), the show boasted the wildly popular "You're a
Grand Old Flag." Cohan claimed he got the idea for this song when he overheard a
Civil War veteran lovingly say of his battalion's tattered banner, "She's a
grand old rag." When a critic complained about referring to the Stars and
Stripes as a rag, Cohan changed the word to "flag."
Cohan had clearly hoped his marriage would be like that his parents enjoyed,
but Ethel Levey was too talented to stay in George's shadow for long. Tensions
rose between them, no doubt fueled by suggestions in the newspapers that Josie
Cohan resented Ethel. When George's occasional overnight "writing"
sessions at various hotels became more frequent and prolonged, Ethel suspected the
worst -- as it turns out, with good reason. In 1907, she obtained a divorce on grounds
of adultery. Ethel remained one of vaudeville's most popular headliners and
raised daughter Georgette on her own.
Within months, George married Agnes Nolan, a chorus girl who was refreshingly
unimpressed with his fame. Sam Harris soon married Agnes' sister -- and the
longtime partners became in-laws.
George and Agnes Cohan had three children, Mary, Helen and
George, Jr. The last birth was difficult, and the use of morphine
as a prescribed pain killer left Agnes with chronic health problems that were
never publicly discussed. She became a homebound recluse and some sources suggest that
George eventually found extramarital distractions -- resulting in at least one illegitimate
son. But the marriage endured, and George's peccadilloes remained well-kept secrets until
long after everyone involved was dead.
George M. Cohan was now at the top of his profession, a position he relished for
years to come.
In an age with no electronic mass media, he was the first superstar of
American show business, his name familiar from coast to coast. Cohan had
triumphed as an actor, singer, dancer, songwriter, playwright, director and producer.
No one else in the American performing arts has worn so many hats so
successfully. Actor and longtime friend William Collier put it this way
"George is not the best actor or author or
composer or dancer or playwright. But he can dance better than any author,
compose better than any manager, and manage better than any playwright. And that
makes him a very great man."
- As quoted in John McCabe's George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway.
(New York: Doubleday& Co., 1973), pp. xi-xii.
Cohan's professional habits became the stuff of legend --
- He rarely let a promising idea die quietly. When his autobiographical
drama Popularity (1906) failed, he turned it into a musical
shamelessly entitled The Man Who Owns Broadway (1909) -- and this time
around, it became a hit.
- Cohan directed all his productions to run at a quick pace, never giving an
audience the chance to feel bored. He once defined his approach this way --
"Speed! Speed, and lots of it; that's my idea of the thing. Perpetual
- He was a popular show doctor, turning other people's flops into
hits a process he referred to as "Cohanizing." Because he
rarely took credit, no one is sure how many plays and musicals
profited from this treatment.
- Cohan was so accustomed to touring that he didn't have a fulltime home during the
early 1900s. When pressed, he listed the Knickerbocker Hotel (which used to stand
at 142 West 42nd Street) as his residence.
While most sources refer to Cohan's "flag waving," patriotic fervor
was only one of the noteworthy elements in his work. Many of his songs and plays
also reflected his ethnic roots. Theatre historian John
Bush Jones writes
For Cohan, the spirit of Ireland
thrived in the large Irish-American communities of New York, Boston and his
native Providence. To be Irish in America was, for him, to be an American with a
proud ancestral heritage. Accordingly, he wrote numbers like "Mary's a
Grand Old Name" from Forty Five Minutes From Broadway,
"Harrigan" from Fifty Miles From Boston and "Nelly Kelly,
I Love You" from Cohan's postwar Little Nelly Kelly. These numbers'
lyrics extolled the Irishness of the title characters, while the melodies fused
an Irish lilt with American flair, trading on popular song-forms of the day,
such as the "waltz clog" rhythm for "Nellie Kelly" . . .
- Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of the
American Musical Theatre. (Lebanon, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2003), p.
Cohan had always known how extraordinary his talents were. Some
considered him an egotist he just saw himself as being invariably right. Cohan
biographer John McCabe offers this view --
Cohan was not an egotist in the usual sense; he was
inescapably an egoist, this in large measure deriving from his life pattern
and full commitment to the theatre. A standard dictionary definition of
"egotist" is "A conceited, boastful person." An
"egoist" is defined as "A self-centered or selfish
person." The words that describe Cohan accurately are
"self-centered" which he was at times to almost appalling degree. .
. Cohan's egoism was born of the need to succeed and it was nurtured by the
circumstances of his taking on the duties of a man and a manager while he was
still a boy, a boy forced to miss much of his boyhood. As he matured and his
talents proliferated, his egoism, not surprisingly, grew proportionately.
- McCabe, p. 106.
Cohan was also noted for his professionalism and private generosity. His abrasive,
demanding style covered a tremendous empathy for anyone else who shared the theatrical
profession. No one cared more about theater people, and no one was as willing as Cohan to
help out a performer or stage hand suffering from hard times or poor health. Unlike most
Broadway producers, Cohan and Harris were unfailingly fair to actors and authors. Such
qualities made it hard to hate Cohan. He was so popular with his fellow actors that they
made him the "abbot" of the Friar's Club for two terms -- a unique honor.
On to: Part III
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