George M. Cohan

George M. Cohan, 1878-1942
Walter Kinstler, 1923
National Portrait Gallery

Born into a family of vaudevillians, George M. Cohan was first presented to the public at the age of three in an act billed as "Master George--Violin Tricks and Tinkling Tunes." He ventured off on his own in his early twenties and became the librettist, composer, producer and star of his own productions. Beginning with his first Broadway musical in 1901 The Governor's Son. Cohan was far removed from the romantic gentility of the operetta craze as it was possible to be. His models were the farces of Harrington and Hart, with their vaudevillian zest for the "great melee" and their relish for incorporating the everyday rhythms of urban immigrant life. The electrifying red, white and blue Cohan persona focused not on the Viennese schlog of operetta but on the vernacular culture of America: in his 1904 hit Johnny Jones he sings, "I'm a Yankee doodle dandy, Yankee doodle do or die/ A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam."