Starting out as a poor Irish-American kid from Providence, RI, Cohan never spent more than a few weeks in school. His parents, Jerry and Nellie, were show people, and they added young George and his sister Josie to their act, which they billed as "The Four Cohans."
Growing up, George got to criss-cross the continent 10 times with his family, learning what audiences liked from coast to coast. It didn't matter if they were playing places like Providence or Portland, San Francisco or South Slocan; you could learn from audiences--and fellow variety artists--everywhere, George's father said.
By his mid teens, George was running the act--writing songs and sketches, and handling bookings. The "Four Cohans" became the best-known, highest paid family act in vaudeville. Cohan's ultimate goal, though, was Broadway.
Cohan became the leading musical-comedy star of his day. But his interests extended far beyond musical comedy. Such enduringly popular Cohan straight plays as Seven Keys to Baldpate and The Tavern (which Cohan wrote in three days) have never gone out of print.
Cohan's Playbill bio for his final hit Broadway show noted he was "perhaps the best beloved and most popular of all American players.... He has been awarded the accolade of First Actor by practically all the leading critics." Cohan was the first member of his profession ever honored with a Congressional medal.