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George Michael Cohan became the stuff theatrical legends are made of, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he instigated a few of those legends, including one surrounding his birth date.
George M. Cohan was America’s first show business superstar, known coast to coast as a successful actor, singer, dancer, playwright, composer, librettist, director and producer. Once known as “The Man Who Owned Broadway,” most of his work is forgotten today — aside from a few of his songs and the film bio Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Cohan’s baptismal certificate — which is his only written birth record — verifies that he was born in Providence, Rhode Island on July 3rd, 1878. However, Cohan’s family unfailingly insisted that George and his country shared birthdays on the 4th. Although noted for their honesty, the Cohans certainly would have found it hard to resist the publicity value of a performer being “born on the Fourth of July.”
In 1900, most Americans sincerely believed there was no problem that a little “Yankee know-how” and a dash of common “American” decency couldn’t fix. George M. Cohan’s writing reflected this jingoistic exuberance, expressing it as no other playwright or songwriter had…While most sources refer to Cohan’s “flag waving,” patriotic fervor was only one of the noteworthy elements in his work. Many of his songs and plays also reflected his ethnic roots.
Cohan visited the White House in 1940, where President Roosevelt presented him with a Congressional medal honoring him as the creator of “Over There.” To this day, he remains the only American composer to receive such an award. But Cohan was hardly anxious to receive it. He had kept Roosevelt waiting for more than a year — some suggest that FDR’s progressive social policies had alienated the increasingly conservative Cohan.
In Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), the songs and patriotism come to life. It was a different time, for sure, but the songs this man wrote were as vital to the war effort (that’s the World War, The Great War!) as soldiers and weapons. I hope you take the time to listen to these songs and catch the spirit, the love of America!
In the early 1960s, a statue of George M. Cohan was erected in the center of Times Square, at the intersection of Broadway and 47th Street. Crowds waiting for the TKTS line now snake around the base of that statue every day, and most pay little if any attention to it. But the visage of the man who once “owned Broadway” still gazes down the street he dedicated his life to. In a neighborhood caught in an ongoing vortex of upheaval, Cohan’s monument provides a much-needed visible link with the past.