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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 547

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This is the grave of George Cohan.

Born in 1878 in Providence, Cohan grew up in a family of vaudeville performers and therefore started performing as a small child. In fact, his parents used him as a stage prop when he was an infant. Anything for a laugh.

Cohan started performing himself when he was 8, as a violinist and dancer. His family created a family act called The Four Cohans that also included his sister (buried here as well, as you can read). They toured together consistently from 1890 to 1901. They would take the summers off and hang out in Massachusetts, but toured the rest of the year. Cohan became a very skilled writer for the stage, especially musicals, doing a lot of the work for the family even while young. In 1901, he broke away from the act to go out on his own, producing his first Broadway show that year. He had a big hit in 1904 with Little Johnny Jones, for which he wrote several songs that became well-known.

Cohan soon became one of the most prominent of the Tin Pan Alley writers, composing over 300 known songs, many of which became big hits for the day, which was generally defined by sheet music sales in the pre-radio days. These included “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway.”

What makes Cohan most known today is that he readily used his skills to produce propaganda for the government in World War I, that great moment of propagandistic art, from posters to films to music. Notably, he wrote “Over There,” which was recorded by many artists immediately, including Enrico Caruso and Nora Bayes.

At the time though, this was only one thing Cohan was famous for, as he became probably the leading Broadway writer of his day. His heyday really continued up through about 1920, during which time he produced about 50 musicals for Broadway. Seven Keys to Baldpate was perhaps his most famous because it started getting adapted to silent film, made into 7 different films, most recently 1983’s House of the Long Shadows, starring Vincent Price. Cohan acted occasionally himself, including in a few silent films, though his opposition to the 1919 Actors Equity Associations strike led him to stop acting and made him many enemies. He kept fighting the AEA in the aftermath because as a producer, he had more at stake there than in the acting. But it also meant he often couldn’t act in his own productions.

In 1925, Cohan published his autobiography, Twenty Years on Broadway and the Work It Took to Get There. He acted a bit later in life too, including in the 1932 film The Phantom President, with Jimmy Durante and Claudette Colbert. In 1933, he appeared in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness! and played FDR in Rodgers and Hart’s 1937 musical I’d Rather Be Right. Somewhat unclear on how much dancing there was in that role, but who knows given how FDR was portrayed in the contemporary media. His last play came out in 1940. In the same year, Judy Garland played the title role in a film adaptation of his 1922 play Little Nellie Kelly.

If “Over There” is what Cohan is most known for today, second is the biopic of him, Yankee Doodle Dandy, starting James Cagney. When this was released in 1942, Cohan was dying of cancer. But he received a private screening of it before he died. Have to say that if you are dying in such a horrible way, seeing a screen adaptation of your life that is also a great movie is probably a good salve for your pain. He died later that year, at the age of 64.

George Cohan is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other people mentioned in this post, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Enrico Caruso is in Naples and while that would be a hell of a personal sacrifice, I guess if one of you wanted to send me to Italy, I’d make it happen. Meanwhile, Judy Garland is in Los Angeles and Nora Bayes happens to also be at Woodlawn, so a return visit is in order (I also failed to find Walt Rostow on my last trip there, so this can serve several functions). Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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