Sunday, September 20, 2009

Radio Memories: Gratitude, Family and Patriotism

"My father thanks you, my mother thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you."

This expression of gratitude became a familiar conclusion throughout twenty-five years' worth of curtain speeches for one very gifted entertainer's theatrical performances. He was a legend in his own time, at the turn of the 20th century, and hopefully the light of his life's work can continue to shine through our century as brightly as it did through the last.

George M. Cohan's love of country was only eclipsed by love of family, and as I've studied his life over the years his example has often made me wonder about how we may increase the love of one through love of the other, and if either are ever really that separate...

Our Sunday series of posts on Radio Memories, devoted to the glory days of radio drama, the theater of the mind, returns this week with a bang: a biographical broadcast dedicated to that theatrical sensation, that American musical legend,

George M. Cohan.

Wading through YouTube, or similar online archives, will reveal just how much of our recent cultural heritage seems to have been preserved; movies, music, television shows... you name it, it seems to be there, somewhere, ready to be relived anew. Yet, back up a generation or two, and the gaps tend to far outweigh the surviving artifacts of the significant influences that so shaped and entertained the modern mind at the turn of the 20th century.

Some of this historical record was doomed to disappear, given its nature. Vaudeville, such a treasured slice of life for so many decades, has gone the way of all live theater: when the curtain comes down the art lives on only in memory.

Maybe, like life itself, this fleeting quality lends the theatrical performance much of its perceived value. Unlike most other media, it's here-today-gone-tomorrow... just like we are, who make up its audience.

We can watch a filmed version of a stage act, but... "it's just not the same". We can read the dusty playbills and fraying programs from a century ago, listing the great stage performers, and wonder at the magic of an Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and George M. Cohan. What must it have been like, to witness Live? Often enough their stage work was preserved upon film, or record; but, "it's just not the same".

These ghosts from our past are well represented by the Yankee Doodle Boy himself, George M. Cohan. Such a famous celebrity in his day, yet today reduced to anonymity, known primarily for his patriotic contributions to America's musical legacy.

When people my age know him at all, it's perhaps through the wonderful James Cagney biographical film, Yankee Doodle Dandy, a cinematic tribute that Cohan himself lived to see before cancer brought down the final curtain on his career in that wartime year of 1942.

That career saw over 10,000 stage appearances, the writing of 500 songs (according to his autobiography; 1,500 songs, according to the experts at Wikipedia), making his first appearance on the stage at the age of eight in 1886, retiring after appearing in his last play in 1937.

At his peak he was as famous for his love of family as we was for the patriotism behind songs like "Over There" and "You're A Grand Old Flag". He wore that love as openly as his love of country, maybe more so.

Mary Ramsey, lifelong friend of the Cohan family, remembers:

"One sweet thing about George M, while his mother was alive, there was never a day went by when he didn't either see her at her apartment, or call her on the phone when he was out of town, he would never miss calling her. She always had heard from him, every day."

Secretary Ida Kohn remembers:

"He was a very gentle person, kind, and very well-mannered, of course... It was so sweet and charming of this man, who was so famous in the American theater, to refer to his father, with such humility, as 'my Daddy'."
Precious little survives from his legendary days on the American stage; for reasons that can be heard in the embedded program below, Cohan only made 7 (!) records of his songs throughout his life. Fortunately, through the hard work of radio producer Joseph Meyers we can hear George M. Cohan in a forum that can truly make us value the treasure that he left us. Mixing hobby and employment, Meyers built a remarkable radio series, called Biography In Sound, dipping into his impressive collection of rare recordings as well that of the archives and news gathering services of NBC. The series came just as radio was following vaudeville into the cultural fog of yesteryear, each week interviewing family, admirers and colleagues of famous statesmen, stars, athletes, poets, writers, from Woodrow Wilson to Babe Ruth to WC Fields to Clarence Darrow to Carl Sandburg to... George M Cohan.

The Biography In Sound episode broadcast on March 5, 1957, offered a stirring tribute entitled "They Knew George M Cohan". The concluding 15 minutes include rare excerpts from an April 1938 dinner, put on by the Catholic Actors Guild on behalf of the great song and dance man.

It was a very humble showman who took to the microphone that special night:

"This gathering here, tonight, it's more of a tribute to the memory of my father than anything else. And of course that makes it doubly thrilling to me..."
For the rest of his speech, I invite you to sit back, dim the lights, and rekindle the flame of the flickering candle of memory, of the relationship between love of family and love of country... and love of life.

You're a grand old flag,
You're a high flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave.
You're the emblem of
The land I love.
The home of the free and the brave.
Ev'ry heart beats true
'neath the Red, White and Blue,
Where there's never a boast or brag.
But should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Keep your eye on the grand old flag.

Previous Radio Memories posts:

Fibber McGee And Molly: The Scrap Drive
D-Day Broadcasts (from June 5, 1944)
Red Skelton: Vacations
Frontier Gentleman: Gambling Lady
Information Please: Guests Walter Duranty and John Gunther
The Aldrich Family: Cleaning The Furnace
Tom Mix, Terry and the Pirates VE Day broadcasts from May 8 1945
You Are There: The Capture Of John Wilkes Booth
Fort Laramie: War Correspondent
CBS Radio Workshop: Son Of Man
Great Gildersleeve: Easter Rabbits
Dimension X: Time And Time Again
An American In England: Women Of Britain
Cavalcade Of America: Bob Hope Reports
The March Of Time: Feb 10 1938 broadcast
Hear It Now: Coming Home From The Korean War
Escape: Vanishing Lady
Rogers Of The Gazette: Rewinding The Town Clock

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A valuable post on gratitude.

Karim - Mind Power