Yankee Doodle Mitzvah


From left: James Cagney as George M. Cohan, the author about the time of his theatrical debut, and the real Cohan.

By RORY LANCE


Yankee Doodle Dandy has been my favorite film since I was four. I never get tired of it. Before home video, you had to be available whenever a tv station decided to schedule a film, and if TV Guide announced that Yankee Doodle Dandy was coming, my schedule was finalized. In those days it was the property of New York Channel 9’s Million Dollar Movie, which replayed the same film all week with multiple showings on the weekend. Even at four, I was in front of the set for each and every showing — not only to watch, but also to get up on our blue-green linoleum floor and mimic every dance step of James Cagney’s.

My whole family also loved this movie, although I was usually the only one who would dance along with Cagney. But on certain occasions my two brothers would join in. We were all fascinated by Cagney’s dance against the wall at the climax of the “Yankee Doodle Dandy” number. One wall in our living room had no furniture in front of it, so that became the target in our choreographic experiments. My mother washed footprints off that wall for years. In other houses, a mother might warn, “No ball playing in the house!” In ours, it was, “Stop imitating Jimmy Cagney on that wall!”

The music of George M. Cohan was also the centerpiece of my theatrical debut two years later. My oldest brother Bart’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah was the most exciting event of my six-year lifetime: new suits, flowers, catered food and a live band! When we first visited the Israel Manor catering hall to discuss services and budget, we could hear the current affair’s celebration even from the office. As we stopped by the hall to peek in, some little girl guest had gotten up to join the band in a rendition of “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound Of Music, on Broadway at the time.

So when I saw the band at my brother’s Bar Mitzvah, I figured it was time to make my debut. But I had reservations. What would happen if I was so good that the band would snatch me up to join them? At six, was I ready for a life on the road? Drinking? Gambling? Midnight gigs? But the chance to sing with a live band was just too tempting, So I went over to my mother and said, “I want to sing ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ with the band.” She spoke to the bandleader and reported, “He said you could sing after dinner,” and I forgot about the whole thing. Then, getting a bit sleepy after dinner, I heard the bandleader say, “And now for a special guest appearance, Mr. Rory Schwartz!” I froze with fear until my brother Paul pushed me and said, “Go!” I walked up to the band with a quick-paced gait and took my place at the microphone. The band leader asked me what I wanted to sing and I said, “Yankee Doodle Dandy!” Incredibly, they played it in my key and without any music or rehearsal. Damn, were they good. At six I was still a bit tongue-tied, so my rendition was more like “Yanky DooDoo Dahndie,” but the crowd loved it. As my mother bragged for years to come, “Cousin Normie came running back from the coat check to listen, with his hat and coat already on!”

In 1959 I watched the dedication of the statue of George M. Cohan in Times Square on television. At the time, I saw it as an honor for my hero from Yankee Doodle Dandy. I had no idea that the Actors’ Equity Association was fiercely opposed to this installation because forty years earlier Cohan had been a formidable opponent of creating a labor union for actors, which he never did join, and the scars of that battle had yet to heal. But the city went ahead with its plans, making George M. Cohan only the third actor to be honored with a statue in New York, joining Shakespeare in Central Park and Edwin Booth in Gramercy Park. A fourth actor was added more recently with the dedication of a statue of Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden, which appropriately stands in front of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.


Rory Lance is the stage and pen name of Player Rory Schwartz. He is an accomplished character actor on both the musical and dramatic stages and in numerous film and television projects. He has also spent much of his career teaching and introducing young people to the joys and challenges of the theatre.