Thoughts & Musings

Keeper of the Keys to Old Broadway:
Geroge M. Cohan’s Seven Keys to Baldpate (1913)

  • 23rd January 201423/01/14
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Discussion Sunday is February 9th

© 2014 by Eileen Warburton

Right at the southern end of the triangle between 45th and 47th Streets, on Father Duffy Square, opposite Times Square, stands an eight-and-a-half foot bronze statue of ‘the man who owned Broadway,’ George M. Cohan (1878 – 1942). Ironically, it’s the only statue to an actor or theatrical figure in the entire New York theatre district. Since 1959, when a committee chaired first by Irving Berlin, then by Oscar Hammerstein II made certain that George M would be so honored, the great composer/actor/ song-and-dance man has stood, jaunty with hat and cane, surveying the domain he encouraged and built. Inscribed on the plinth are the words from one of his most enduring songs: “Give my regards to Broadway!”

There’s also a bronze bust of Cohan at Fox Point in Providence because Rhode Island can proudly claim Providence as this uber-thespian’s birthplace. His parents were on the road as vaudeville performers when, on July 3rd (not the 4th), 1878, baby George Michael decided to arrive. First appearing within weeks of his birth as a prop in the act, Cohan grew up onstage and backstage as one of the Four Cohans (“My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.”) traveling the vaudeville circuit and writing successful songs and sketches for the family business while still in his teens. His first big Broadway hit was Little Johnny Jones (1904), produced when he was only 26 and introducing songs like “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy.” From that point, George M—young, brash, confident to the point of arrogance–was major box office, publishing more than 300 catchy hit songs (many of which are still well-known). From 1904 through the 1920s Cohan created and produced over 50 musicals, plays, and revues—many starring himself–with shows running simultaneously in as many as five theaters, one of which he owned and that carried his name. He was a 1914 founder of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. He pioneered the American musical in which character was revealed and the plot of a narrative play was advanced by song and by dance. As a solid representative of working-class America himself, Cohan’s characters were not high-born and elitist, but “average Joes and Janes.” And average Americans, a whole new play-going audience, were his devoted fans.

Seven Keys to Baldpate, emphatically not a musical, was one of Cohan’s most popular plays. Based on a best-selling novel of 1913, Cohan recognized its finger-on-the-pulse innovative format as a great theatrical property and rushed to adapt it, getting it to the stage of the Astor Theater by the autumn of that year. 1913 up to World War I is just at the tipping point when the stereotypical standbys of the stage—The Hero, The Villain, The Damsel in Distress–were beginning to seem very shopworn and used up. Within only a few seasons, thematic realism and realistic acting would dominate New York theatre. This made it the perfect moment for satire and spoof. Slyly, the delicious,

clockwork-timed farce of Seven Keys to Baldpate mixes all the formulaic melodrama of the era with a satirical send-up of just those melodramatic stereotypes. Like popping a genie out of a lamp, Billy McGee’s bet that he can write a 10,000 word novel within 24 hours releases all the familiar stage and dime-novel characters and situations of that past quarter century—the gang of criminals, the stolen loot, the hayseed watchman, the corrupt politician, the dumb henchmen, the crooked cop, the ghostly mountain hermit, the righteous widow, the greedy businessman, the feisty girl reporter, and the (sigh!) love-at-first-sight romance. And everybody, it seems, has a key! While Cohan plays with the hackneyed devices, he’s also making great fun of them, expecting the audience to view them with ironic laughter and then adding a few twists of his own. You could almost call Seven Keys to Baldpate a “meta-farce,” that is, a farce of a farce.

Cohan’s instincts were right, as usual. Seven Keys to Baldpate ran for a year in New York, a year in Chicago, and was revived in 1935. The play has been filmed no less than seven times, played twice on TV, and was twice adapted for radio (once with Jack Benny, once with Walter Pidgeon).

Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933), the original novelist of Seven Keys to Baldpate, was a self-conscious trafficker in literary stereotypes, so we may expect that he was well aware of the satire he was hatching in his mountaintop mystery. Biggers specialized in pulp mysteries until the mid-1920s when he was inspired to write the first of his famous and popular Charlie Chan mysteries. He explicitly conceived Detective Chan to go against the prevailing stereotype of the “Yellow Peril” Chinese, like Fu Manchu (which Biggers found offensive). “Sinister and wicked Chinese are old stuff,” he wrote, “But an amiable Chinese on the side of the law and order has never been used.”

George M. himself was soon to be the Yankee Doodle Boy in spades. Having written the ever popular “You’re a Grand Old Flag” in 1906, when World War I arrived, he wrote the anthem every doughboy sang as he shipped out, “Over There” (1917). These two songs would earn him the Congressional Gold Medal from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 for his contributions to national morale during World War I. Cohan was the first American in any artistic field to receive this honor.

Most of us probably know Cohan best from the biop film Yankee Doodle Dandy, made with James Cagney in 1942 (Cagney won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance). George M was in the terminal stages of abdominal cancer, so a private screening was arranged for him. “My God,” he exclaimed happily after watching Cagney’s performance, “What an act to follow!”

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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