George M. CohanDancer / Singer / Songwriter
Born: 3 July 1878
Died: 5 November 1942 (cancer)
Birthplace: Providence, Rhode Island
Best known as: "Mr. Broadway" and the composer of "Yankee Doodle Dandy"
George Michael Cohan was known as "Mr. Broadway" for his preeminent role in American musical theater in the first quarter of the 20th century. A vaudevillian since childhood, he grew up as one of The Four Cohans, a family of entertainers that included parents Nellie and Jerry and older sister Josephine. George began writing hit songs in the early 1890s for New York's Tin Pan Alley, and before he was 18 he was in charge of the family's act. Cohan was the toast of New York between 1904 and 1920, famous for writing, directing and performing in exuberant musicals produced with his partner Sam Harris. Cohan composed a number of sentimental and patriotic favorites, including "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Give My Regards to Broadway" "You're A Grand Old Flag" and "Over There." His popularity among the New York theater crowd slipped after 1919, when he aggressively opposed a union for actors, and by the 1920s tastes had changed and Cohan began the first of many "retirements." He flirted briefly with Hollywood and starred (in two roles) in 1933's The Phantom President
(with Claudette Colbert
), but was more at home on the New York stage. He earned rave reviews for his dramatic roles in Eugene O'Neill
's Ah, Wilderness
(1933) and in I'd Rather Be Right
(1937, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt
), but his days as the star of musical comedy were long gone. Cohan died of cancer in 1942, a few months after the release of the film based on his career, Yankee Doodle Dandy
(starring James Cagney
Cohan was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal by the U.S. Congress in 1936 in recognition of his patriotic songs “Over There” and “You’re A Grand Old Flag.” His penchant for self-promotion and the public relations version of events transformed that honor into the fiction of a 1940 Congressional Medal of Honor bestowed by President Roosevelt.
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