He was the man who owned Broadway (second of two posts) December 16, 2007Posted by Jeff in George M. Cohan, Labor, Legit, Theater.
The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo is a joke
But cast your optics on a man who’s all the money,
All the honey,
Pride of the town,
talk of New York,
You’d swear I won the championship
Or found the great North Pole,
The streets are all blockaded
Ev’ry time I take a stroll
The staring crowds amass
And murmur as I pass
He is the man who owns Broadway
That’s what the daily papers say,
The girls are turned away
At ev’ry matinée
Kings on their thrones may envious be
He’s got the popularity
Drop a line or wire to
The sole proprietor
The man who owns Broadway
They say he is the man who owns Broadway!
— Music and lyrics by George M. Cohan, 1909
From the beginning of his managerial career, George M. Cohan was in partnership with Sam H. Harris (1872-1941) (right), who married the sister of Cohan’s second wife. Harris was content to be the “silent partner”; were it not for his name on the door next to Cohan’s, by 1919 few outside their circle would have ever heard of him.
Cohan thought of himself as a businessman first, a playwright and songwriter second, and performing came a distant third. One thing Cagney gets absolutely right is Cohan’s curtness and impatience with anyone who didn’t share his worldview, whether politically (surprise: he was a lifelong Republican), professionally, or socially.
Cohan inherited his father’s hatred and distrust of labor unions. To a certain extent he made up for it by treating his employees better than most theatrical workers were treated in those days. Cohan continued the tradition of anti-labor moguls like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford by giving substantially to charity, in his case $100,000 to the Actors Fund Retirement Home. Still, his actors had no recourse from the backlash of his notorious tantrums and whims (another thing Cagney got right).
The year 1919 saw more labor strikes than any in American history. The American Federation of Labor under Samuel Gompers had honored a pledge not to strike or demand wage hikes during World War I, but after the prosperity that followed the Armistice, few employers stepped up to compensate. Most of the theatrical world had organized twenty years earlier — stagehands, musicians, costumers, even box-office employees were all union — yet actors largely remained aloof from organizing.
The Actors Equity Association strike that shut down Broadway for almost a month, and the effect that strike had on the careers of George M. Cohan and Sam Harris, are the subject of my original screenplay Equity.
Neither Cohan nor Harris ever publicly discussed the reason for their split. But the fact that it happened immediately after the Equity strike (ten years earlier than in the movie), and with absolutely no warning, has led every Cohan biographer to the conclusion that they broke up over whether to sign with the actors’ union. Richard Buckner, who worked on the Yankee Doodle Dandy screenplay, said that Cohan was insistent that the dissolution of Cohan and Harris be portrayed as amicable. Harris died the year before the movie came out.
To wrap this up, two trivia questions:
Q: Which actor in Yankee Doodle Dandy was a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild?
A: Jimmy Cagney, of course.
Q: Which producer was responsible for the Broadway productions of Somerset Maugham’s Rain with Jeanne Eagels, the Irving Berlin Music Box Revues, The Cocoanuts with the Marx Brothers, almost every play or musical by Kauffman and Hart and the Gershwins, Dinner at Eight, Night Must Fall, Stage Door, I’d Rather Be Right with George M. Cohan as FDR, Of Mice and Men and Lady In The Dark?
A: That would be Sam H. Harris.
Never mind the scab — in the end, Sam Harris was The Man Who Owned Broadway.