February 3 is the birthday of the legendary Broadway producer Sam H. Harris (1872-1941). It’s a famous name, but one that is apt to cause confusion. He was not, for example, related to that other famous Broadway producer Jed Harris. And there are so many producers named Sam! Sam Goldwyn! Sam Warner! Sam Spiegel! Sam Fuller! But those are all west coast Hollywood guys; Harris was strictly an east coast Broadway guy.
Previously a boxing manager, Harris broke into theatrical production in 1903 with a play called The Evil That Men Do, which he mounted with partner Al Woods. His second venture, The Errand Boy (1904), starring William S. Hart, Clem Bevans and Billy B. Van, ran only a week. But his third outing proved career-makingly charmed. He teamed up with George M. Cohan to produce the latter’s smash hit musical Little Johnny Jones (1904). The names “Cohan and Harris” became a theatrical byword. The pair worked together for 15 years, co-producing mostly Cohan hits like Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway (1906), George Washington Jr (1906), The Governor’s Son (1906), Popularity (1906), Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford (1910), Broadway Jones (1912), and Seven Keys to Baldpate (1913). In 1908 they launched the Cohan and Harris Minstrels**. In 1916, they opened the Cohan and Harris Theatre, and produced the first edition of The Cohan Revue of 1916. There would be another edition in 1918.
In 1919, the famous team split over the issue of the Actor’s Strike. Ironically, Cohan, an actor, sided with the producers, and Harris, a producer, sympathized with the actors! That goes to show you what kind of guy he was. However, he did keep the playhouse, now renamed the Sam H. Harris Theatre. At this stage he began producing plays on his own. (In 1937, Cohan and Harris reunited to produce the former’s starring vehicle Fulton of Oak Falls. Cohan was also in the Harris-produced I’d Rather Be Right, that same year).
Meantime, he formed another partnership with an important songwriter, Irving Berlin. With Berlin he opened the Music Box Theatre in 1921, and began producing the Music Box Revue, of which there were annual editions from 1921 through 1924.
Just a few of the hit plays Harris produced over the next couple of: Rain (1922) starring Jeanne Eagels; Hamlet (1922) with John Barrymore; The Jazz Singer (1925) with George Jessel; The Cocoanuts (1925) and Animal Crackers (1928) with the Marx Brothers; the original stage version of Chicago (1926); the Moss Hart-Irving Berlin musicals Face the Music (1932) and As Thousands Cheer (1933); the Moss Hart-Cole Porter show Jubilee (1935); the Hart-Kaufman-Rodgers and Hart musical I’d Rather be Right (1937); John Steinbeck’s own adaptation of his book Of Mice and Men (1937); and several George S. Kaufman plays (with co-collaborators like Hart, Edna Ferber and Ring Lardner), including June Moon (1930), Once in a Lifetime (1930), Of Thee I Sing (1931),Dinner at Eight (1932), Merrily We Roll Along (1934), Stage Door (1936), You Can’t Take it With You (1936), The Fabulous Invalid (1938), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939), and George Washington Slept Here (1940). His last show was Lady in the Dark (1941). You read this list (and this is only a portion of his credits) and you’re like, “Was anyone else producing shows on Broadway during these years?”
Harris died in 1941…if he’d lived just one year longer he’d have been able to see Richard Whorf portray him in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Cohan followed his old partner to the grave just shortly after the film’s release. The two are buried side by side at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.