Hey Providence, What is that?

by by by Sam Adler-Bell

Born on the Fourth of July, or thereabouts

At the corner of Wickendon and Governor Streets in Fox Point, right in front of the quirky knick-knack shop Curiosities, stands an obtrusive granite block, out of which protrudes the foppish upper body of the late, great Broadway magnate and star George M. Cohan. The statue, sculpted from sooty bronze, depicts the Providence native mid-utterance, lifting his fedora and graciously extending a hand to an imagined audience, as if to say, “No you, Providence. You!”

Born in 1878 to a pair of vaudevillian performers, in what several accounts describe as a “cold-water flat” at 536 Wickendon St., Cohan would grow up to be one of the 20th century’s most renowned and prolific writers and performers of show tunes, authoring such beloved and ubiquitous songs as “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”It was patriotic songs like these, combined with the Cohan family’s insistence that he was indeed born on the Fourth of July (despite a baptismal certificate that suggests otherwise) that helped Cohan to identify himself, as one biographer put it, “with everything elemental to American life.”

So incorruptibly American was Cohan’s image, in fact, that many believe the actor James Cagney took on the role of Cohan in the popular biographical musical film Yankee Doodle Dandy(1942) to prove his patriotism and allay rumors that he harbored communist sympathies. After all, no America-hating Commie could possibly portray the man who wrote “For the Flag, For the Home, For the Family”, one of Cohan’s famed patriotic jingles. Indeed, as Cohan once put it, “the American flag is in my heart, and it has done everything for me.”

Family Guy
“A lot of people make that mistake!” Sy Dill, the 80-year-old retiree and founder of Providence’s George M. Cohan Committee, told me chidingly, when I naively asked whether Cohan was a Jew. According to biographer John McCabe, Cohan chose to pronounce his name CO-en, as in Cohen, like my Grandma June’s maiden name, instead of Co-HAN, as his Irish Catholic parents said it, as an act of solidarity with the many Jewish performers he worked with and admired in his early years in show business.

Dill, who is Jewish, a New York City native who’s lived in Providence for eight years now, told me he got the idea for a statue commemorating Cohan when he and his wife came upon the “little rusting plaque” outside the Fox Point Boys and Girls Club which reads, simply, ‘George M. Cohan born here.’ Dill, who’d grown up in “somewhat of a showbiz family,” was appalled to find out that such a towering figure as Cohan was so inadequately memorialized in the city of his birth. So Dill and his wife Judi got to work raising funds. They quickly identified the corner of Governor and Wickenden, where the city had recently constructed, what Dill calls, a “classic one of those plazas with nothing in it,” as an ideal place for a memorial.

In 2009, after a considerable amount of “ballyhoo” on his part, Dill succeeded in getting the city’s go-ahead for the project. Providence commissioned the Massachusetts-based sculptor Robert Shure, who also designed the city’s Irish Famine Memorial. Shure told the Projo that he felt his sculpture compared favorably to the austere, eight-foot tall Cohan likeness in New York’s Duffy Square (designed by Georg John Lober), which depicts the singer standing rigidly with cane in hand, looking, in Shure’s words,“like too much of a politician.”

Nephews of Uncle Sam
At the 2009 unveiling ceremony, Curt Columbus, Artistic Director for the Trinity Repertory Company, was given the first annual George M. Cohan Award for Excellence in Art & Culture. Columbus’s company performs at the site of the historic Majestic Theater, where the Cohan family reportedly once performed their vaudeville act. It was in those days that Cohan, a boy no more than 12-years-old, coined his trademark curtain call: “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you and I thank you."

In 2010, the award went to longtime RISD Professor of English Michael Fink, who remembers singing George M. Cohan songs in glee club as a child. Fink told me in an email exchange that growing up in Providence he “always knew that [Cohan] was ours in some sense.” For him, the location of the statue at the corner of Wickenden and Governor, “where immigrants stepped off India Point ships and shared the alleyways of Fox Point,” is an ideal place to commemorate Cohan, a child of Irish immigrants who ultimately helped to “define America.”

Indeed, Fox Point’s emergence as an industrial hub in the mid-19th century fueled waves of, initially Irish, immigration to the neighborhood. And by the time Cohan was performing his violin and dance routines in the 1890s, the availability of waterfront and factory work had attracted large numbers of Portuguese, Cape Verdean, and Azorean immigrants as well, all of whom packed their often large families into newly-built tenement housing on Gano Street and the snug triple-decker houses on Williams and John Streets—now so fondly associated with off-campus Brown University parties.

According to Fink, who was a boy during World War II, it was Cohan’s songs, with “their messages of love and loyalty and memory,” that held together that potentially turbulent mix of cultures and identities. His unapologetically patriotic music reminded Americans, as we endured “the common fate of depression and [war]” that, in the end—to quote yet another Cohan lyric—we were all “‘nephews of Uncle Sam.’”

“Love of country ain't the fashion anymore,” Fink told me. “It's considered either cliché or cornball, or even worse, ‘reactionary’.”But “that’s what makes [Cohan] fun. Because you have to put up something like a fight to defend his work and his legacy.”

Providence’s (reluctant) son
Dill, whose George M. Cohan Committee is still raising funds to pay off the formidable expense of the statue, hopes that with the memorial completed, the memory and work of George M. Cohan, whose prominence in the American cultural imagination has waned over the latter half of the 20th century, will begin to “puff back into society” and give this city something to be proud of.

“Providence is stuck between Boston and New York,” Dill told me, gesturing with his hands to the front and back of the coffee shop where we spoke. “Those cities attract all the great figures. So we have to be proud of what we’ve got.” And thanks to Dill’s efforts, we’ve certainly got him—scores of shoppers and dog-walkers stroll through George M. Cohan Plaza every day, where an embossed bronze inscription under Cohan’s statue proudly reads, “Son of Providence.”

Ironically, it’s not altogether clear George M. Cohan wanted us to have him. Though Cohan vigorously associated himself with all things American, he was apparently not particularly proud of his Ocean State roots. “I was born in Providence, Rhode Island,” Cohan told Theatre Magazine in 1907, “but I am trying to live it down.”

Sorry, Georgie. But you’re ours forever!

Sam Adler-Bell B‘12.5 is everything elemental to American life.