George M. Cohan, known as the “Father of American Musical Comedy,” was an American comedian, songwriter, actor, playwright, dancer, and producer. George began his profession at an early age, having been born into a family of artists. By the age of eight, he was playing the violin and performing as a dancer. He, along with his parents and sister, established “The Four Cohans,” a family vaudeville act. He performed in numerous acts and plays as a child, and in his teens, he began writing his own skits and songs. He was soon directing, producing, and composing his own Broadway musicals. He rose to prominence as one of the most successful songwriters of his time, with humorous lyrics and catchy tunes. George, as a child, was known for his erratic behavior, but as he grew older, he became more mature. He met Broadway producer Sam Harris, and the two developed a successful partnership that lasted many years, with their first production, “Little Johnny Jones,” becoming one of Broadway’s biggest blockbusters. His plays were known for their fast pace and action, and he was praised with invigorating the American theater. “The finest single person the American theatre ever produced—as a performer, playwright, actor, composer, and producer,” according to Cohan.
Childhood and Adolescence
Jeremiah Cohan and Helen Costigan had a son, George, who was their second child. He was taught to sing and dance as soon as he could walk and talk by his parents, who were traveling vaudeville performers.
As a result of his family’s continual travel, he had minimal formal schooling, but it is clear that he had some training in reading, writing, and arithmetic, as evidenced by his later successes.
He began his career as a kid performer when he was eight years old, when he played the violin and danced. His father, mother, and sister were the other three members of his family’s vaudeville act, ‘The Four Cohans.’
Career of George M. Cohan
From 1890 until 1901, ‘The Four Cohans’ toured the United States. In 1893, he and his sister made their Broadway debut in a sketch called “The Lively Bootblack.” Cohan coined his famous curtain speech during this time: “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.”
He met and began a long-term partnership with writer Sam Harris in the early 1900s. They collaborated on multiple Broadway musicals, plays, and revues, including the critically acclaimed ‘Little Johnny Jones’ (1904).
Cohan was a hugely popular playwright and entertainer, with plays running in up to five theaters at the same time. In 1913, his play ‘Seven Keys to Baldpate’ solidified his status as a significant playwright. The play sparked some debate, but it eventually became a hit.
In 1917, Cohan and Sam Harris co-produced the three-act musical comedy ‘Going Up,’ which was a tremendous hit. In the same year, he wrote “Over There,” a song that became extremely popular among American soldiers during both world wars.
He was involved in a disagreement with the Actors’ Equity Association in 1919, which caused him to take a break from acting for a while. His relationship with Sam Harris was also dissolved as a result of the dispute.
He played a double role in the 1932 film ‘The Phantom President,’ a fictional narrative about American presidential contenders starring Claudette Colbert and Jimmy Durante.
His portrayal in Eugene O’Neill’s comedic film ‘Ah, Wilderness!’ (1933) was acclaimed as his best, earning him critical acclaim as a serious actor.
In 1937, he played Franklin Roosevelt in the political parody “I’d Rather Be Right.” He returned with his former partner, Sam Harris, to co-produce the play ‘Fulton of Oak Falls’ in the same year.
Major Projects of George M. Cohan
The musical drama ‘Little Johnny Jones’ (1904), which he co-produced with Sam Harris, was one of his best triumphs. The show, which was inspired on the true story of American jockey Tod Sloan, featured Cohan’s songs “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” both of which went on to become huge hits.
His most famous play, ‘Seven Keys to Baldpate,’ (1913), is known for its creative depiction of Earl Derr Biggers’ novel. In 1917, he also made a silent film based on the play with the same name.
‘Going Up,’ a 1917 musical comedy based on a James Montgomery play, depicts the story of a writer who transforms into an aviator in order to win the hand of the girl he loves. The play was a huge success, and it was later adapted into a movie.
Achievements & Awards
In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal for his services to World War I morale, particularly through the songs “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There.” He was the first person to receive this prize in any artistic category.
Personal History and Legacy
In 1899, Cohan married actress and dancer Ethel Levey. When his sister left to marry, she joined ‘The Four Cohan.’ The couple had a daughter before eventually divorcing.
In 1908, he married Agnes Mary Nolan, with whom he lived until his death. They were the parents of three children.
In his latter years, he battled cancer and died in 1942 at the age of 64.
In 1942, James Cagney portrayed his character in the film ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ which was based on his life and songs.
In 1925, he released his memoirs, ‘Twenty Years on Broadway and the Years It Took to Get There.’
Despite the fact that he had appeared in a few films, he had a deep hate for Hollywood.
He is interred close to Sam Harris, a friend and business partner.
In 1959, a bronze statue of Cohan was built in Times Square on Broadway to honor his contributions to the American musical theater.
Estimated Net Worth
George M. Cohan had a net worth of $20 million and was an American performer, composer, dramatist, actor, singer, dancer, lyricist, and producer. George M. Cohan was born in July 1878 in Providence, Rhode Island, and died in November 1942. As a child, he began performing in vaudeville acts with his family.