George M. Cohan
(07/03/1878 - 11/05/1942)

George Michael Cohan was a United States entertainer, playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer, director, and producer of Irish descent. Known as "the man who owned Broadway" in the decade before World War I, he is considered the father of American musical comedy.

Cohan was born in Providence, Rhode Island to Irish Catholic parents. A baptismal certificate indicated that he was born on July 3, but the Cohan family always insisted that George had been "born on the Fourth of July!" George's parents were traveling Vaudeville performers, and he joined them on stage while still an infant, at first as a prop, later learning to dance and sing soon after he could walk and talk.

He completed a family act called The Four Cohans, which included his father Jeremiah "Jere" Cohan (1848–1917), mother Helen "Nellie" Costigan Cohan (1854–1928), and sister Josephine "Josie" Cohan Niblo (1874–1916). Josie, who died of heart disease at a young age, was married to Fred Niblo Sr. (1874–1948), an important director of silent films, including Ben Hur (1925), and a founder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Their son, Fred Niblo Jr. (1903–1973) was an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter.

By his teens, Cohan became well-known as one of vaudeville's best male dancers, and he also started writing original skits and songs for the family act. Soon he was writing professionally, selling his first songs to a national publisher in 1893. Cohan had his first big Broadway hit in 1904 with the show Little Johnny Jones, which introduced his tunes "Give My Regards to Broadway" and "The Yankee Doodle Boy".

Cohan became one of the leading Tin Pan Alley songwriters, publishing upwards of 1500 original songs, noted for their catchy melodies and clever lyrics. His other major hit songs included "You're a Grand Old Flag", "The Warmest Baby In The Bunch", "Life's A Funny Proposition After All", "I Want to Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune", "You Won't Do Any Business If You Haven't Got A Band", "Mary's a Grand Old Name", "The Small Town Gal", "I'm Mighty Glad I'm Living, That's All", "That Haunting Melody", and the popular war song, "Over There".

From 1906 to 1926, Cohan and Sam Harris also produced over three dozen shows on Broadway, including the successful Going Up in 1917, which became a smash hit in London the following year.

In 1925, Cohan published his autobiography, Twenty Years on Broadway and the Years It Took to Get There.

In 1932, Cohan starred in a dual role (as a cold, corrupt politician and his charming, idealistic campaign double) in the Hollywood musical The Phantom President, co-starring Jimmy Durante and Claudette Colbert, with songs by Rodgers and Hart.

He earned acclaim as a serious actor in Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! (1933), and in the role of a song-and dance President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Rodgers and Hart's musical, I'd Rather Be Right (1937).

His final play, The Return of the Vagabond (1940) featured Celeste Holm in the cast; she was either 21 or 23 years old at the time.

In 1940, Judy Garland played the title role in a film version of his 1922 musical, Little Nellie Kelly. Cohan's mystery play, Seven Keys to Baldpate, was first filmed in 1916 and has been remade seven times, most recently as House of the Long Shadows (1983), starring Vincent Price.

In 1942, a musical biopic of Cohan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, was released, and James Cagney's performance in the title role earned the Best Actor Academy Award. The film was privately screened for Cohan as he battled the last stages of abdominal cancer.

His 1920 play The Meanest Man in the World was filmed with Jack Benny in 1943.

Available Films

Seven Keys to Baldpate (1917)

Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919)