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Presenting: "You're a Grand Old Rag" — La Mirada Theatre

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts presents, “You’re a Grand Old Rag” (or “What Patriotism Means to Me”), a show focusing on immigration and what it means to be an American, as seen through the works of the Theatre’s original Yankee Doodle Dandy and iconic patriot, George M. Cohan, with the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra. The production also features a rare post-show talk-back with Cohan’s great granddaughter!

The show is set for one performance only on Sunday, June 30th at 2pm., and presents a fascinating, stirring look at immigration accomplishments, assimilation and patriotism – including unforgettable footage, not seen in over 80 years, of Cohan performing his own songs!

Featured also are songs from Cohan’s final, unpublished musical as well as lobby displays of highly-prized Cohan sheet music, souvenir programs, vintage photos, and more from the exclusive collection of Cohan expert Dave Collins.

“You’re a Grand Old Rag,” is aptly named, thanks to the famous Paragon Ragtime Orchestra. Using Cohan’s original orchestrations, The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra will feature Colin Pritchard singing beloved and rare toe-tapping tunes as featured on the group’s hit Cohan album, produced by Grammy Award winner, Judith Smith. Since 1989, the Walt Disney Company has relied on the Orchestra's recordings for the outdoor theme music heard at Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland, Disney World, and Disneyland/Paris. Over the years, the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra has been heard on the soundtracks of several motion pictures and television programs. The Orchestra's audio and video recordings have been widely praised and considered instrumental in rekindling interest in America's rich traditions of theater, cinema, and dance orchestra music.

Recognized even today as the iconic Yankee Doodle Dandy, George M. Cohan was the preeminent American entertainer, playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer and theatrical producer. Cohan published more than 300 songs during his lifetime, including the standards, “Over There,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

Known in the decade before World War I as the man who owned Broadway, he is considered the father of American musical comedy. His life and music were depicted both in the 1942 classic film, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” for which James Cagney won an Oscar portraying Cohan, and the 1968 Broadway musical, “George M!” which starred Joel Grey and Bernadette Peters.

“You're A Grand Old Flag" started with a conversation – an old man to whom Cohan gave a ride in his car one day. Throughout the journey, the old-timer clutched a meticulously folded piece of cloth and began to reminisce about his Civil War days. He'd been at Gettysburg, carrying the flag at Pickett's charge, and at the end of his recollection he unfolded the tattered piece of material and revealed it to be the Stars and Stripes. "It was all for this," the stooped veteran told his traveling companion. "She's a grand old rag." Like any good songwriter, Cohan banked the line, and then fashioned a play around it. Cohan, by the way, really had been born on the Fourth of July, as he wrote later in the lyrics of his "Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

More than a century after he rocketed to fame, George M. Cohan’s name still evokes vivid images of the archetypical Broadway “song-and-dance man.” He was an incandescent figure, with an incredible range of talent. As his arranger and orchestrator M.L. Lake recalled, Cohan was “purely and simply, a genius — with so many brilliant facets that even his most intimate, oldest friends never ceased to be amazed over his new flashes.”

As historian Jack Burton put it, Cohan “was something refreshingly new in the American theater. His songs packed a punch, his heroes and heroines were average American guys and gals you’d meet in Joe’s bar, and his librettos put New Rochelle, N.Y., Richmond, Virginia, and Boston on the musical comedy map.

But what did Mr. Cohan sound like? From his surviving recordings, the first striking characteristic was his manner of speaking many of the lyrics in his songs, rather than actually singing them. He used this technique intermittently, reciting a few words, and then singing a few, and then lapsing back to speech, sometimes slurring these two deliveries together. In this process Cohan often ignored the written melodies and rhythms of his own songs, but the effect was one of thrilling insouciance: To audiences it seemed as though he was making it all up off the top of his head, delivering his street-wise, sardonic observations just as he pleased — while the orchestra underscored him with jaunty melodies. The blend of these strange, compelling sounds were utterly irresistible to the average theatre-goer.

M.L. Lake goes on to observe: “George had absolutely no singing voice, yet he could put over a topical song better than any singer I ever heard. There was something in his voice that never failed to get under one’s skin, even if you heard the same lines week after week.”

David Ewen wrote it best: “Everything about Cohan was personalized . . . he wore a straw hat or

derby slightly cocked over one eye, and in his hand he held a bamboo cane. He sang out of the corner of his mouth with a peculiar twang and danced with a unique halting kangaroo step. He had his own way of gesturing — with an eloquent forefinger. The way he strutted up and down the stage, often with an American flag draped around him, was singularly Cohanesque; so was the way he could create a bond between himself and his audiences with colloquial little speeches or homey monologues.”

All this was not an act: his associates affirmed that the character Cohan presented on stage was quite similar to his actual personality. But backstage he was admired for his great warmth and kindness. As Lake remembered, “George, of course, did it all; he wrote the books, wrote the music, directed and starred in his own productions. But, unlike many producers, George never flaunted his position. No bombast. No temperamental explosions. In fact — quite the opposite. Naturally, every performer, stagehand, and musician idolized such a boss — you just couldn’t help it.”

In 1936, in recognition of his songs’ contribution to the American spirit, the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to Cohan – the first artist ever to receive such an honor. A statue of Cohan was also erected in Times Square (the only statue of an actor on Broadway), and was dedicated by Oscar Hammerstein II, commemorating Cohan’s contributions to American musical theatre.

“You’re a Grand Old Rag” will have one performance on Sunday, June 30th at 2 p.m. at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd in La Mirada (near the intersection of Rosecrans Avenue where the 91 and 5 freeways meet). Tickets range from $10 - $27 (prices subject to change) and can be purchased at La Mirada Theatre’s website, or by calling the La Mirada Theatre Box Office at (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310. Student and group discounts are available.

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer


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