George M. Cohan will always be remembered on Broadway. A statue of the late composer and performer, who penned such influential songs as “Over There,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” stands proudly in Times Square, saluting all those who pass by.
But long before Cohan was a star of the stage and screen, he was a son of Providence, RI. Cohan was born there on July 3 (though the legend that it was July 4 persists) and was raised by his Irish immigrant family in a cold-water flat at 536 Wickendon Street, in the Fox Point neighborhood. He got his start performing in the family vaudeville act, and then went on to conquer Broadway and define American patriotism through song. Though the family had changed their name to Cohan from the Irish Keohane, Cohan frequently paid tribute to his Irish roots, with such hit songs as “H-A-Double R-I-G-A-N (Spells Harrigan)” and shows like The Merry Malones and Little Nelly Kelly.
When he learned that Cohan had been born in Providence, Sy Dill, a New Yorker who moved to Providence in 2003, was astounded that the city had no real memorial to Cohan. Dill, who is now 80, decided to change this by founding the George M. Cohan Committee of Providence, RI and set out to have a proper statue erected in Cohan’s honor.
After receiving the OK from the city, he approached Massachusetts-based sculptor Robert Shure, who, appropriately, had designed Providence’s Irish Famine Memorial a few years prior.
Unveiled in the summer of 2009, Shure’s bust of Cohan is a livelier counterpart to the more staid statue of him in New York. The bronze Cohan, located at the intersection of Governor and Wickendon Streets, raises his hat in a dapper manner, as though he is about to take a bow.
To further the legacy of Cohan within Providence and to draw much needed support, the committee created an annual George M. Cohan Award for Excellence in Art & Culture. The inaugural 2009 recipient was Curt Columbus, the Artistic Director of Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company. The 2010 recipient was Michael Fink, Professor of English at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Dill and the Committee also hope that the city of Providence will benefit from some Cohan-related tourism and interest. Said Dill, “Cohan represented America, but he was born here in Providence. You can’t deny the importance of that.”