Theater patrons in Augusta in the early 1900s had a chance to hear Broadway star George M. Cohan.
Broadway star George M. Cohan came to Augusta with his wife, parents and sister to perform in an original musical called “The Governor’s Son” in the Grand Opera House on Feb. 13, 1902, at Eighth and Greene streets.
But it would be two years later that theater patrons began hearing his most famous song associated with the Fourth of July.
Almost every red-blooded American knows the words:
I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.
A Yankee Doodle, do or die.
A real live nephew of my uncle Sam’s
Born on the Fourth of July.
I’ve got a Yankee Doodle sweetheart.
She’s my Yankee Doodle joy.
Yankee Doodle came to London
Just to ride the ponies.
I am a Yankee Doodle boy.
Cohan actually was born on the third of July of 1878 in Providence, R.I.
He had become a famous vaudeville circuit and Broadway star by the time he came to Augusta with his family act called “The Four Cohans” consisting of himself; his parents, Jerry and Nellie Cohan; and his sister, Josephine (Josie).
Three years before coming to Augusta, he had married Ethel Levey, who performed with The Four Cohans in shows and as a separate musical act.
His wife was part of the cast of “The Governor’s Son” in which Cohan played the title role. The website musicals101.com states that “Cohan’s first Broadway musical, The Governor’s Son (1901), was a near miss.
“It was an expanded version of one his vaudeville sketches, involving the comic misadventures of several guests at a country resort – a woman (Josie Cohan) in search of her runaway husband, two older battling newlyweds (Jerry and Nellie Cohan) and a vivacious girl (Ethel Levey) competing with a widow for the attentions of a governor’s son (George – of course).”
Oddly enough, the unknown reporter for The Chronicle who reviewed the show wasn’t as impressed with Cohan as he was with Cohan’s wife.
“Miss Ethel Levey, who put on the character of ‘Emerald Green,’ is probably the best attraction on the bill,” the reviewer noted without even mentioning Cohan or his performing parents or sister.
“The play is all right,” the reviewer concluded. “It is well staged, scenes were portrayed in excellent manner. What there was in the way of music was bright and catchy. There was fun from beginning to end.”
Almost three years after being in Augusta, Cohan opened his new show “Little Johnny Jones” on Broadway on Nov. 7, 1904, at the Liberty Theatre. The Four Cohans and Levey were in the cast.
Among the great songs in the show were “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Give My Regards To Broadway.”
It was inevitable that a national touring company was created after the show was presented for 52 performances on Broadway. And that touring company, unfortunately without Cohan or his family, on Jan. 23, 1906, came to Augusta’s Grand Opera House.
The reviewer liked the show but wasn’t particularly impressed with the actor playing the lead role; after all, it was created by Cohan himself in his own distinctive style of dancing, singing, mannerisms and vivacious personality.
“The part he played (on Broadway) was rendered here by a young man who has aped the said George M. until he’s just like him,” the reviewer wrote, “except that where Cohan is funny the imitator is not; that’s the distinctive difference anyway.”
It was America entering World War I a few years later that led to another Cohan patriotic classic.
Cohan reportedly was inspired in April 1917 to write “Over There” after reading newspaper stories of America deciding to side with its Allies in entering World War I.
Vocalist Charles King first performed “Over There” in the fall of 1917 at a Red Cross benefit in New York, but it was Broadway star Nora Bayes who made the song famous. She recorded it for the Victor Talking Machine Co. on July 13, 1917, which released it on a 78 rpm vinyl record. More than 2 million copies of sheet music featuring Bayes on the cover in a patriotic uniform were sold by end of the war.
During their time together as The Four Cohans, it was George M. who came up with his closing curtain speech captured forever for movie fans in the 1942 film musical “Yankee Doodle Dandy” starring James Cagney.
Cohan’s lifelong trademark went, “Ladies and gentlemen, my mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you and I assure you, thank you!”
It’s not known whether Cohan told his Augusta audience exactly that in February 1902. But you can bet that Augusta audiences were mighty thankful that The Four Cohans came to the Grand Opera House on Greene Street that winter night.