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A Dandy of an Irish Yankee...
George didn't get much of a public school education; he also had a few lessons on the violin - which he hated. The theater became his school - and he was an apt pupil. He appeared in one of his parents' stage sketches as a 'prop' while still an infant. When he was nine years old, he became a member of the act, with his sister Josephine joining him just one year later. The act became officially billed as The Four Cohans with George doing sentimental recitations; a bootblack specialty, and other skits. By age 11, he was writing original material, and by age 13 he was writing songs and lyrics.
In 1894, when he had reached the ripe young age of 16, he sold his first song to Witmark Music Publishing. They paid him $25.00 for "Why Did Nellie Leave Home?" This song was followed in 1895 by "Hot Tamale Alley" which he sold to vaudevillian May Irwin for her act. Then came "The Warmest Baby in the Bunch" and "I Guess I'll Have to Telegraph My Baby."
By the time George was 20, 'The Four Cohans' were fabulously popular 'headliners' commanding a $1000.00 per week. George was writing all of the material, he became the starring actor, and he also was managing the family's business affairs. Isidore Witmark, in his autobiography, has pointed out that the young (and also the mature) George Cohan was an opinionated, brash, cocky kid with a very high opinion of his own gifts. In retrospect, it would seem that his opinion was justified.
This great American song and dance man spent 56 of his 64 years on the stage. During his lifetime, he wrote 40 plays, collaborated with others on another 40 plays, and shared production of still another 150 plays. He made over a 1000 appearances as an actor. And many of the more than 500 songs he wrote were major hits.
In 1899, George married his first wife, Ethel Levey, a popular singing comedienne. She became the 'fifth' Cohan in the act. Cohan then turned his attention to the Broadway Musical Comedy stage. His first two musicals were based on his vaudeville sketches and they were failures. But then, in 1904, George and Sam Harris formed a partnership that was destined to become one of Broadway's most successful producing partnerships.
In the same year, Cohan's 'Little Johnny Jones' opened on Broadway, with Cohan playing the role of a jockey. It became a huge hit. Among the songs were: "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "Give My Regards To Broadway."
In1906, the play, 'George Washington, Jr.' made its debut with George as the star. It was in this play that he adopted a sketch with which he would be identified for life. Dressed as a soldier in a tattered uniform, he would march up and down the stage carrying an equally tattered American flag while singing a very patriotic tune. The song was: "You're A Grand Old Flag." The original title was "You're a Grand Old Rag" and George never meant any disrespect; on the contrary, he was simply trying to illustrate the endurance of Old Glory. Unfortunately, some influential folks objected and Cohan renamed the tune.
By 1911, the Cohan-Harris partnership had no fewer than 6 hit shows on Broadway, and controlled 7 theaters. However, it wasn't until 1917, that Cohan composed his greatest hit song. America had just entered World War I and Cohan was living in New Rochelle - "Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway". On the train down to the city, he thought of a song. Cohan has said "I read those war headlines, and I got to thinking and humming to myself, and for a minute, I thought I was going to dance. I was all finished with both the chorus and the verse by the time I got to town, and I also had a title."
In 1919, Actor's Equity called a strike in an effort to gain recognition as bargaining agent for its membership. The strike closed the Broadway theaters. As a producer, Cohan was affected and he took it badly. Many of the people who aligned themselves with Equity were people that Cohan had helped with their careers. He became bitter, lost his enthusiasm, broke up the successful Cohan-Harris partnership, and retired from show business.
But not for long. After some rest and travel, Cohan returned to Broadway. Unfortunately, the shows he created during this period were failures. This added to Cohan's bitterness. Cohan remarked to a friend, "It's getting to be too much for me, kid. I guess people don't understand me any more, and I don't understand them." He was due for yet another disappointment.
In 1932, he starred in a Hollywood film, 'The Phantom President'. What he experienced in Tinsel Town were directors who had never acted or sang, trying to teach him how to sing, dance and wave the flag. He felt that the big Hollywood moguls did not give him the homage that was his due. So, he returned to Broadway, and vowed never to go back to Hollywood. But success was again hovering just around the corner.
In 1933, Cohan starred in Eugene O'Neils 'Ah, Wilderness', which was a big hit. In 1937, he played F.D.Roosevelt in 'I'd Rather Be Right', a successful Rodgers and Hart production. Then, in 1942, Hollywood debuted 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' a biography of his life. Jimmy Cagney won an Academy Award for his impersonation of Cohan.
In was also in 1942, while George was recovering from an operation, that he paid his last respects to Broadway. He asked his nurse to accompany him on a taxi ride from Union Square up to Times Square , stopping briefly at the Hollywood Theater, to watch some scenes from 'Yankee Doodle Dandy'.
Cohan was taking one final look at all the places he had worked and starred. He was never to see Broadway again. On November 5th, 1942, George M. Cohan died. To quote President Roosevelt, "A beloved figure is lost to our national life."
You're a grand old rag,
Holly and Ivy hanging up and
something wet in every cup*
Not so long ago, Irish Christmas decorations were much simpler than they are now. The children gathered holly and ivy for adorning, windows, doorways, mantles and pictures, and the father would carve out a turnip in which would be placed a large red candle. This would go in the window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Only in relatively recent times did an Irish family have a Nativity scene and a decorated tree in the house. As for Mistletoe, it's quite rare in ireland and is generally associated with ancient Celtic and Druidic fertility celebrations; this is most likely where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
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March 4, 2011
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