Monday, July 3, 2017

Born Today July 3: George M. Cohan


George Michael Cohan, giant of the Broadway stage, and all round silent film renaissance man, was born on this day in Providence, Rhode Island.  Cohan pretty much did it all: he was a composer, he penned musicals, he was a stage and film actor, a film scenario writer, a librettist and he was also a motion picture producer.  He was even a big enough character to be played by several famous actors, with Mickey Rooney and James Cagney (who also played Lon Chaney Sr.) amongst them. Public records and baptismal records show that he was indeed born on the 3rd of July, but he and his family like to say that he was born on the 4th of July instead.  His parents were traveling vaudevillians and he himself was put on the stage by the age of 8--playing the violin and later as a troupe dancer.  By 1890, the family was touring under the name The Four Cohans; they continued to do this through the year 1901.  It was at this time that he and a sister made their Broadway debut.  Around this time, he coined his famous curtain exit speech "My mother thanks you, my father thanks you,, my sister thanks you, and I thank you."  Memories of a relatively happy childhood, especially the summers spent with Grandmother in North Brookfield, Mass off the touring circuit inspired his popular musical 50 Miles From Boston in 1905.  He had already had extensive experience in both skit writing and song writing for his family on the vaudeville circuit, and would eventually become a major figure Tin Pan Alley.  His most famous song is definitely "Yankee Doodle Dandy." The first time any of his work was used in a motion picture came in 1907 with Harrigan, an experimental early sound film from the UK using the Chronophone system (of Gaumont fame), showcasing his song of the same name, written in the same year. In 1916, he added film scenario writing to his credits with Officer 666; the film was directed by his brother-in-law Fred Niblo.  He first appeared in film in 1917 when he took the starring role in Broadway Jones (he had already appeared on film as himself in 1910 in the Actor's Fund Field Day).  Broadway Jones, also gave him his only film production credit.  His music was featured in the William A. Wellman 1927 epic Wings.  His play Seven Keys to Baldpate was made into the 1983 horror comedy House Of The Long Shadows, featuring the likes of Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and John Carradine--all ganging up on Desi Arnaz Jr.  His music was first featured on television with "Yankee Doodle Dandy" being used in two episodes on the 1949 season of The Ed Sullivan Show.  The most recent use of his compositions in filmed media came last year in the film Hidden Figures (2016).  Cohan lost his battle with cancer at home in his apartment in New York City on the 5th of November in 1942; he was 64 years old.  His funeral mass was held at St. Patrick's Cathedral with giants of the stage attending, amongst them Irving Berlin, Eugene O'Neill and Eddie Cantor.  He is interred in a family mausoleum at the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx.  

For More:

PBS' Broadway Stars List

Leave Virtual Flowers @ Find A Grave

His Obituary in The New York Times

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