In November of 1923, those seeking entertainment in the Lehigh Valley had plenty to choose from. True, radio was little more than tinny static, and television, a lab experiment. But for those willing to leave their firesides there was orchestra conductor Paul Whitman’s Rialto Ramblers. At the Colonial Gloria Swanson was heating up the screen in a Parisian romance “ZA ZA.” And Alice Joyce was turning on the charm with George Airless in a melodrama “The Green Goddess.” For the truly adventuresome Broadway was an hour and a half train ride away. And a discreet ad placed on the theater page by the Hotel Astor on Times Square noted that “year after year guests from Allentown return regularly to the Astor. They have learned by pleasant experience that to stay at the Astor is to live in New York.”
But on Wednesday, November 30, 1923, Allentown was going to do Broadway one better. For that one night-and that one night only- George M. Cohan, nicknamed “the man who owned Broadway” who produced bundles of hit songs in every show was going to be returning to the stage after an absence of ten years to appear in “The Song And Dance Man”, a semi-autobiographical show. And the place he had chosen to premiere it was Allentown’s Lyric theater, today Miller Symphony Hall.
Cohan’s link with the stage began before he could walk. His birth certificate read July 3, 1878 but his family always insisted he was “born on the Fourth of July.” Irish Catholic vaudeville performers Jerome and Nellie Cohan raised their son to be part of the act with his older sister Josephine, or “Josie.” As the “Four Cohans” they toured the vaudeville circuit. At the end of the act young George would step forward with this farewell: “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.”
But Cohan was more than a “hoofer.” As early as 1893 he was selling songs to music publishers. In 1901 he produced his first Broadway show and in 1904 he came out with the smash hit “Little Johnny Jones” that included the trademark songs, “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy.” From 1904 to 1920 Cohan created and produced over 50 musicals. Some of the songs, like “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway,” and “Mary Is A Grand Old Name” have become standards in the canon of popular music of America. When America entered World War I Cohan was on hand to give it its theme song. “Over There” sent thousands of marching men into the fields of France. Later some American “doughboys,” being soldiers, converted its tune into a hymn to their undergarments titled “Underwear.”
With his status as a songwriter in the golden age of Tin Pan alley songsters firmly in place, Cohan was considered by some the real founder of the American musical comedy. Before Cohan there was almost no plots to a musical. Dancers and singers would simply perform what had been set out before them. Cohan’s characters were wholesome All-American couples that at least attempted to be a part of a story. In the 1920s and 30s these themes were developed eventually into the Rogers and Hammerstein hits of the 1940s and 50s. In 1911 he created a drama of a mystery called “Seven Keys to Baldpate.” It became a hit but both critics and audiences were surprised by it coming from Cohan.
Cohan’s absence from the stage had a least something to do with conflicts he had with Actors Equity Association. His refusal to join the union led to his not appearing on stage.
According to Cohan the inspiration for “The Song and Dance Man,” the show he took to Allentown, came after an encounter he had with a fellow performer. One Cohan biographer described it like this:
“One day when Cohan was walking to his office, a vaudevillian his own age approached him for a loan and recalled the week they had both worked the same bill as song and dance men.
'I can’t tell you how proud I am, Georgie,' he said, 'that you always keep referring to yourself as a song and dance man. I guess you aren’t ashamed of it.'
'Ashamed of it, hell,' said Cohan. 'I’m proud of it kid, damned proud of it.'"
This meeting led Cohan into the creation of a show based on what his life would have been like if he had not gone on to success and had always been a “hick trouper.” Cohan created a musical drama, far from the star-spangled successes of his early years. It told the story of a tragic figure who goes on to be a success in business only to return to the freedom of the stage.
The Lehigh Valley press was full of ads for the production. The morning papers the day of “The Song And Dance Man” was to be shown had banner ads across the bottom of the theater page: “TONITE AT THE LYRIC GEORGE M COHAN (HIMSELF)”. As Cohan knew, the play’s success was far from a sure thing. Lehigh Valley audiences were known as tough. They would, as the saying went, “sit on their hands” if they did not like it. It was considered the ultimate test before it went to Broadway. But the next day’s reviews told Cohan he had a hit on his hands. Ovation followed ovation as the audience gave the great showman applause.
“Allentown accorded George M. Cohan a veritable ovation last evening when the great actor, producer manager, playwright and composer appeared personally in his own new play 'The Song and Dance Man,'" wrote the Morning Call’s critic. “If the demonstrations were not sufficient to satisfy anyone that Allentown heartily approves of 'The Song and Dance Man' and is sending it on to New York with its strongest recommendations and expressions, heard as the great audience left the theater, would overwhelmingly prove the favor with which it was received here.”
“The Song and Dance Man” opened on Broadway on New Year’s Eve 1923. New York critics found the plot soggy. But it was recognized as a real expression by Cohan of how he felt about the stage and his role in it. They noted not only was he a musical comedy star, but a really good “straight” actor. And that sincerity came through. The public were not concerned about the plot. It was just Cohan and they loved him.
Cohan went on to live until 1942, dying of cancer. Just before his death he was shown a copy of the film biography “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with James Cagney playing him. As the film ended Cohan was asked what he thought. “My God,” he said, “what an act to follow!”
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