Playwrights, Composers, Lyricists and Authors
George M. Cohan
George M. Cohan was America's first show business superstar, known coast to coast as a successful actor, singer, dancer, playwright, composer, librettist, director and producer. Once known as "The Man Who Owned Broadway," most of his work is forgotten today — aside from a few of his songs and the film bio Yankee Doodle Dandy. From variety and vaudeville through the first glory years of Broadway musical comedy, Cohan played a vital role in the development of this art form and became the stuff theatrical legends are made of.
Born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1878, he was the second child of Jerry and Nellie Cohan, who were entertainers on the variety circuit. George spent his childhood perpetually traveling with his family around the United States. 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. 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 his older sister Josie joined his parents in a full family song and dance act.
There were hundreds of family acts in vaudeville, but few as closely knit as The Four Cohans. They often gave 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. George’s father insisted that The Four Cohans were a "road act" that played well all across the country but would never please the hardnosed critics on Broadway in New York City. So the act traveled to every corner of the US, by-passing Manhattan year after year.
George M. Cohan started composing at an early age; his first vaudeville melody was published in 1893 when he was 15 and was followed by many other hits. He convinced his family to make the jump from the touring circuit to full length Broadway stage productions in New York. His first shows were not Broadway successes but provincial audiences delighted in their simple, wholesome humor. The Cohans trouped these shows around the country for many profitable years.
In 1904 the show Little Johnny Jones became the hit he had long hoped for and included songs with an openhearted combination of catchy melody and patriotic sentiment. It was his best score to date, including the memorable melodies “Yankee Doodle Boy" and "Give My Regards to Broadway." He was finally recognized as one of Broadway's top stars and eventually became the first superstar of American show business, his name known from coast to coast. Cohan had triumphed as an actor, singer, dancer, songwriter, playwright, director and producer.
In 1940 President Roosevelt presented him with a Congressional medal honoring him as the creator of Over There and to this day he remains the only American composer to receive such an award. George M. Cohan passed away peacefully in 1942 and in the early 1960s his statue was erected in the center of Times Square. The man who once "owned Broadway" still gazes down the street he dedicated his life to.