Irish Ghosts of America: George M. Cohan, Times Square, New York

George M. Cohan: He gave his regards to Broadway, and reportedly never left.

In 1995, there were stories of a ghost in Times Square for years. He was said to haunt one of the old theaters — the Harris, in particular. The New York Times ran an article about the ghost. Maria Alvorado, the manager of a tourist business that had recently moved into the Harris, said she had looked up one day to see a tall, elegantly dressed man watching her. A local resident said his dogs howled every time they passed the theater, and that he, too, had seen the ghost.

That same year, psychic Elizabeth Baron visited the theater. She declared it to be the ghost of early theatrical impresario George M. Cohan, and, in her account, as soon as she did so one of Cohan’s most famous songs, “The Yankee Doddle Boy,” could be heard coming from the stage.

Of all of America’s Irish-American stage performers, Cohan was probably it’s most boisterously Irish and proudly America. These twinned themes appeared in endless permutations in his stage musicals, which were frequently about fiercely patriotic Irish-American boys, often played by him. He wrote popular songs that drew from from Irish melodies about Irish-American character. There was, as an example, his song “Harrigan” from “Fifty Miles to Broadway,” which included the following lyrics:

H – A – double R – I – G – A – N spells Harrigan
Proud of all the Irish blood that’s in me; Divil a man can say a word agin me.

Cohan got his start in Vaudeville as part of a family of entertainers called The Four Cohans, including his parents Jerry and Nelly, who started their careers billed as “The Irish Darlings.” George joined the act as a boy playing violin and then performing buck and wing dance numbers, a clog dancing style imported from the British Isles and Ireland that was popular among both Irish-American and African-American youth; it quickly evolved into tap dancing. Cohan was enormously adept at the dance, and was most famous for a gravity defying trick that would have him launch himself at a wall and then literally leap over his own extended leg.

Cohan sidelined as a Tin Pan Alley songwriter when the sheet music industry was dominated by Irish-American songwriters producing an endless stream of sentimental songs about Ireland, and also made a name for himself as a Broadway star who wrote, produced, directed, and played the lead in many of his own shows. He wasn’t a critical darling, but was an audience favorite, and many of the songs he introduced in his shows went on to become standards. Cohan also occasionally appeared in plays by other playwrights —  his earliest starring role was the title character in “Peck’s Bad Boy,” a wildly successful story about a misbehaving child, and many years later he starred in the play “Ah, Wilderness” by the great early Irish-American playwright Eugene O’Neill.

Cohan’s life was the subject of a musical biopic in 1942 called “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and starring James Cagney as Cohan. Cagney himself was ideally cast, as he was one of the most famous Irish-American performers onscreen at the time, and was himself a former song and dance man. Cohan was then dying of abdominal cancer, and so the filmmakers screened the movie for him privately. Watching Cagney, Cohan is said to have declared, “My God, what an act to follow!” The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won three, included netting Cagney an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Cohan was gone by then, having died in November of 1942, four months before the ceremony. But perhaps he saw it anyway, from the stage of the Harris theater, which, in 1916, had been called the Cohan and Harris thanks to a partnership with George M. Cohan that lasted until 1921. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” billed itself as the story of “The Man Who Owned Broadway.”

Maybe he never left Broadway.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.