The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Originally posted in 2009.
The only thing I’m proud of about vaudeville is that I got out of it. The houses are not all Orpheums and Keith – not by a long way. There are only a few good houses and the others I wouldn’t like to talk about – right out loud. – George M. Cohan
George M. Cohan is unjustly in disfavor nowadays, and has been for something like 60 years. Because of this, most of America has forgotten what all of America used to know – that he spent his first four decades as part of the most tightly knit family in show business history. The ancestral name is actually O’Caomhan. George’s paternal grandfather first changed it to Keohane and then later to Cohan when he moved to U.S. The name was pronounced with the accent on the second syllable “co-HAN” until George – -for whatever reason, switched it to “CO-han” causing subsequent generations to mix it up with Cohen, and assume that Cohan was Jewish. In really, you couldn’t get any more Irish.
George’s old man Jerry (Jerome) may have been the most beloved man in show business. He was legendary for his sweet manner, his modesty and his generosity. He never aspired to be anything more than what he was – a journeyman song-and-dance man, happy to be just a professional in show business. No doubt he was grateful not to have to work at his original trade, which was saddle and harness making. He’d settled in Providence, having migrated down from Boston, where his father had made his first American home. Jerry was good at Irish dancing, particularly clog dancing and he played both the harp and the violin. He started working the new England variety circuits in the 1870s.
In 1874 his sister introduced him to Helen (“Nellie”) Costigan whom he married straightaway. Having no show business background or apparent inclinations, she worked first as a ticket seller where Jerry played. When an actress in the show walked out abruptly however, Nellie was drafted. Though she’d never been onstage in her life, she’d seen the show many times, and hit the ground running. After that she never looked back.
The children arrived in short order. First Josephine (“Josie”) in 1876, and then George on July 4 (of course!) in 1878. Nellie had them both in Providence, but brought them both on the road as babies where they were parked in drawers and trunks while the older Cohans performed. In 1883 they became regulars on the young Keith circuit, with which they were to have a close relationship for almost twenty years. It was only natural for the children to join the act. The kids crossed the Rubicon at ages 7 ½ and 8, Josie doing contortions, George playing violin. This despite the fact that he hated the violin and wasn’t any good at it. He was a cocky s.o.b., which, in the last analysis, was the only really necessary ingredient for success in vaudeville. The squirt told Edward Albee that he had a solo violin act, and he could pay him whatever amount he thought was fair. when Albee handed him $6, he put the fiddle away never to touch it again.
In 1891, the family scored a hit in the legit play Peck’s Bad Boy, in which George played the title character,”Henry” by name. George found out early on that success could be a curse. Kids up and down the circuit wanted to know if he was as “bad” a boy as the one in play, and picked fights with him in every town he played. When still only a boy, George began exhibiting the intense hunger for excellence and success that set him apart. He persuaded Nat Goodwin to let him sit in on rehearsals for A Gilded Fool, just so he could study his technique.
Inspired by Dion Boucicault, he began to write his first plays and songs. By 1893, young George was badgering Jerry to move the family to New York where they could really make a name. Jerry, who had no such ambitions, axed the idea. When George ran away to go there himself, Jerry relented and the Cohans moved to New York. They prepared a special act for the debut at Keith’s Union Square. Called Goggles Doll House, the act was a sort of showcase for each of the four of them. The parents would do some crosstalk, Josie would do her artistic dancing, and George would sing and dance. To George’s chagin, the manager decided to split them up into three acts. George’s act was the weakest of the three. There was no way he wouldn’t look bad without the framing device of the family act. Already smarting from this blow, he began to throw his famous attitude around at the morning rehearsal on opening day, hogging the house pianist for ten minutes over his allotted time. When the stage hands and others chastised him for it, he let loose with a string of unfortunate remarks of the “One day I’ll buy and sell lowlifes like you” variety. By way of reward, the stage manager gave him the first slot in the bill, the spot usually reserved for animals and acrobats. George bombed all week.
Meanwhile, Josie was a smash, and was instantly booked for a solo engagement at Koster and Bial’s. Jerry and Nellie had also been offered bookings for their two act, but, characteristically turned the work down and kept it a secret, so as not to hurt George’s feelings. Strange to think that, by all outward signs, George M. Cohan was the least promising member of his family at this point.
On the other hand, he was a pretty fair little writer. He’d been applying himself since he was ten, and he had a knack for it. Probably spurred on by his mediocrity (at that stage) as a performer, he set to work trying to write good, professional commercial songs. In 1893, his first “Why Did Nellie Leave Her Home?” was published by W. Amark & Sons, the leading publisher of the day. This was followed by “Venus My Shining Love” and several others. Suddenly the demand for George’s songs, patter and sketches was so great he couldn’t supply them fast enough. Mae Irwin performed one called “Hot Tamale Alley”.By the following year, he was earning more than Josie, though she was doing very well for herself as a single. Despite her success, Josie wanted to go back to doing a family act. They gave it a shot, but bookers weren’t too interested.
In 1895 they were hired as a unit to perform in the Gus Williams play April Fool. Here George first distinguished himself as a performer, accidentally discovering one of his trademark eccentric dances, that scissor-like arm-and-leg movement that dancers frequently still do at the climax of their act – an invention of Cohan’s. Unfortunately he blew a good thing after 35 weeks of this successful show by having a fight with the company manager, and the family was once again “at liberty”.
The next year was the worst of their careers. The family mounted four tours of four separate shows, each of which closed 2 weeks after opening. They were about to collectively concede that Josie ought to go out on her own again as a single, when they were called to do a replacement gig at Hyde and Behman’s. The Cohans opened the show, but managed to go over big anyway, receiving five curtain calls. It was at this engagement that George debuted the families’ tag line: “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.”
Suddenly, the Four Cohans were a Big Time act, with George eclipsing Jerry as the family’s manager. Where Jerry had been a pushover, George conceded nothing. Soon they were earning one of vaudeville’s top salaries. This screeched to a halt in 1899, when he had an altercation with B.F. Keith about the family’s billing. As the playwright recalled years later, the exchange went like this:
KEITH: Well, I’m sorry. It’s some mistake, some press agents or sign painter’s mistake, not mine.
COHAN: It isn’t mine, either.
KEITH: What are you going to do?
COHAN: What would you do in my position?
KEITH: If I’d been associated with a man as long as you people have with me, I’d certainly go through for him.
COHAN: Well, Mr. Keith, I haven’t any particularly fond memories of you. The only thing I can recall in the early days of Keith is a lot of hard work, a lot of extra performances, a lot of confinement, six and seven and eight shows a day, running up eighty and ninety steps to the dressing rooms, and a million rules and regulations hanging all over the place. Any time you wanted to smoke you had to go into a little tin closet. So the nice little speech you just made to me, inviting me to go through with the broken contractual conditions, doesn’t mean much. Besides, Mr. Keith, I remember a little incident in Providence on a Saturday night. You didn’t have enough to meet the payroll. And you came back to ask us if we’d mind waiting until the following Tuesday or Wednesday. And my father, Jerry, said “Why, no, if you’re short, and maybe we could lend you a little money, and how much do you want?” And you said about $600 and we let you have it.
KEITH: I don’t remember it.
COHAN: Another thing you probably don’t realize, Mr. Keith, that we are getting a whole lot more money in outside booking than we did when we signed this contract three years ago.
KEITH: Oh, that’s the idea. You want more money.
COHAN: Yes, a whole lot more.
KEITH: I understand now; it’s a shakedown.
COHAN: Call it what you like, Mr. Keith, but just because of that crack, I’ll make you a promise right now—that no member of the Cohan family will ever play for you again as long as you are in the theatrical business.
For plenty of people, such hot-headedness would have meant the end of a career. For George it was the beginning. In recent years, his one-act plays had been a staple of the act. In 1901, following the lead of his hero Ned Harrigan, he adapted one of these The Governor’s Son, to full length.
Over the next ten or fifteen years he was to have a major impact on the American theatre, with a new, realistic style of writing; a vigorous and speedy manner of staging; and, above all, his songs, which were to become a permanent staple of the American repertoire. The early vehicles included Running for Office (1903), Little Johnny Jones (1905); 45 Minutes from Broadway (1906); Popularity (1906); The Talk of New York (1907);. 50 Miles from Boston (1908); The Yankee Prince (1908); The Man Who Owns Broadway (1909) , Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford (1910); and Seven Keys to Baldpate (1913).
Classic Cohan songs from the period include: “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, “Give My Regards to Broadway”, “Life’s a Very Funny Proposition After All”, “45 Minutes from Broadway”, “Mary’s a Grand Old Name”,“It’s a Grand Old Flag”, “Harrigan”, and “Over There”.
Along the way he became rich and powerful as a producer, along with his partner Sam Harris, building the Cohan and Harris and George M. Cohan theatres.
Right along, the other three Cohans had been starring in the productions as well, but in 1914, they all retired, Jerry and Nellie to live out their old age, Josie to get married. Two years later Josie died of heart disease. Jerry went the following year. This succession of blows seems to have knocked the wind out of Cohan, and, although he continued to write, produce, direct, score and act for over 20 more years, from here on in he was increasingly out of step with the public.
His highest accolades in later years came from his work as an actor, as in his only film The Phantom President (1932), and the original production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! He was praised for his calmness and focus as an actor, developing a style that was notably carried on by his most famous disciple as a performer, Spencer Tracy.
Cohan passed away in 1941, just long enough to approve of James Cagney’s bio-pic about him Yankee Doodle Dandy. In 1968, a revue George M! starring Joel Gray, was on Broadway, using Cohan’s songs.
Cohan’s musical comedies have not withstood the test of time, probably because they’re dated, but, more importantly, they depended entirely upon his own personality. They were vehicles for him. Cohan is yet more proof that, for the old vaudevillian, personality was everything. His plays were less than literature, his songs were simple, he was only good as an eccentric dancer, and his voice was below average. Together, somehow, it added it up to more than the sum of its parts. You can see him dance (in blackface I’m afraid) in this clip from The Phantom President. You’ll have to take some Jimmy Durante with it:
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc