YOUNGSTOWN — One patriotic playwright and performer penned many of the feet-stomping salutes to Old Glory you’ll hear in bandstands and street corner parades this July 4 holiday.
And Youngstown’s stages were a regular part of his legend.
George M. Cohan in his classic American tune “The Yankee Doodle Boy” claimed he was “born on the Fourth of July” — but it was actually July 3, according to his birth certificate.
In the early 1900s, Cohan co-owned and leased the former Park Theatre along Champion Street, and made Youngstown a regular stop when his act went on the road, said Steven Shagrin.
“We were right in the heart of Chicago, Pittsburgh [and] Cleveland here. When people went, they stopped in,” said Shagrin. His family owned and managed the Youngstown theaters he remembers fondly from his childhood — including the Foster Theatre, which may soon see a revival.
Shagrin’s grandfather, Joseph Shagrin Sr., also managed the Park in the 1920s and was “lifelong friends” with Cohan. With the Foster’s revival, Shagrin said he’s now digging through old family records and learning much more about the man.
Shagrin said his grandfather started off in theater at 10 years old, as an usher. He went on to become the youngest theater manager in the country, he said. Shagrin visited the Park regularly in his youth, and even learned to operate theater projectors, loading and threading film and synchronizing the reel at the right time.
Shagrin Sr., who died in 1974, was known locally as “Mr. Show Business,” according to Boxoffice Magazine.
Cohan, known as “the man who owned Broadway,” wrote classics like “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag."
Cohan’s “Over There” became the anthem of World War I. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarded Cohan the Congressional Gold Medal for its impact on the war effort.
At the time, a Massachusetts congressman, in justifying that award, called Cohan “a man who has been responsible for the recruiting of thousands of American soldiers during the World War, a man who has brought up the morale of the American people, who by his patriotic songs made young men go to the recruiting office and join the colors.”
It’s one of the musical numbers in the 1942 biographical film “Yankee Doodle Dandy” starring James Cagney as Cohan.
Cohan died the same year the film was released.
But his music will live on for generations. Shagrin said he remembered when his father, Joseph Jr., paraded around their home with his children, flags in hand, singing Cohan’s timeless American tributes.
“He was proud of the fact that his dad knew George M. He’d be singing ‘Over There.’ We’d sing ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy,’” Shagrin said.
“It reminds me of the love that my dad actually had for cinema and the movies and the eye he had for detail.”
TCM will show "Yankee Doodle Dandy" Sunday at 8 p.m. The Robins Theatre in Warren screened the musical Saturday night.