George Michael Cohan was born July 3, 1878 in Providence, Rhode Island.
His parents were traveling vaudeville performers, and he joined them on stage as a prop while still an infant, then after he could walk and talk – he learned to sing and dance.
His sister Josie was a couple years older than George, so when he turned 8 years old he became the regular fourth member of the family vaudeville act called “The Four Cohans” along with his parents and older sister.
During these years, George originated his famous curtain speech: “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.”
George also began writing original skits (over 150 of them) and original songs for the family act.
Soon he was writing professionally, selling his first song to a national publisher in 1893.
George and his sister also made their Broadway debut in 1893 in a sketch called The Lively Bootblack.
The Four Cohans continued to tour together as a family on and off until 1901.
Then in 1901, George wrote, directed and produced his first Broadway musical, “The Governor’s Son”, for The Four Cohans.
His first big Broadway hit in 1904 was the show Little Johnny Jones, which introduced his tunes “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy.”
George fell in love with Broadway and continued to write, compose, produce and appear in more than three dozen Broadway musicals.
Known in the decade before World War I as “the man who owned Broadway”, he is considered the father of American musical comedy.
George M. Cohan became one of the leading Tin Pan Alley songwriters noted for catchy melodies and clever lyrics. He went on to publish more than 300 songs during his lifetime, including his standard World War I song “Over There.”
In 1925, he published his autobiography, Twenty Years on Broadway and the Years It Took To Get There.
In 1930, George appeared in a revival of his tribute to vaudeville and his father, The Song and Dance Man.
In 1932, Cohan starred in a dual role as a cold, corrupt politician and his charming, idealistic campaign double in the Hollywood musical film The Phantom President. The film co-starred Claudette Colbert and Jimmy Durante, with songs by Rodgers and Hart, and was released by Paramount Pictures.
He appeared in some earlier silent films but only made one other sound film, Gambling, in 1934, which was based on his own play.
George M. Cohan was called “the greatest single figure the American theater ever produced – as a player, playwright, actor, composer and producer.”
On June 29, 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to World War I morale, in particular the songs “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There.”
Cohan was the first person in any artistic field selected for this honor, which previously had gone only to military and political leaders, philanthropists, scientists, inventors, and explorers.
George displayed remarkable theatrical longevity, continuing to perform as a headline artist until 1940.
His life and music were depicted in the 1942 Academy Award-winning film Yankee Doodle Dandy
The film was privately screened for George as he battled the last stages of abdominal cancer; Cohan’s comment on Cagney’s performance was, “My God, what an act to follow!”
George M. Cohan died of cancer at the age of 64 on November 5, 1942, at his Manhattan apartment on Fifth Avenue.
After a large funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, Cohan was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, in a private family mausoleum he had erected a quarter century earlier for his sister and parents.
In 1959, a bronze statue of Cohan was dedicated in Times Square at Broadway and 46th Street in New York City. The 8-foot bronze commemorates his contributions to the American musical and remains the only statue of an actor on Broadway.
Then in 1968, he was immortalized in the Broadway musical George M!.
The United States Postal Service issued a 15-cent commemorative stamp honoring Cohan on the anniversary of his centenary, July 3, 1978. The stamp depicts both the older Cohan and his younger self as a dancer, along with the tag line “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
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