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Queue the Music: Cohan's Yellowface Substitution in Little Johnny Jones

  • Brynn Shiovitz


It is 7 November 1904, 7:55 p.m. New York City theatregoers anxiously await the opening of George M. Cohan's newest production, Little Johnny Jones. The house is just about filled, but the well-dressed ushers hustle a few stragglers to their seats. Some of the theatre's usual patrons have been held up late at work, while others are too consumed by Clifford Berryman's political cartoons in the Washington Star to attend the performance. This particular Monday evening marks an important moment for America: polls for the thirtieth presidential election will be opening in fewer than twelve hours. Theodore Roosevelt represents the Republican Party, and Alton B. Parker heads the Democratic ticket. Although results will not be known for sure until the close of the 8 November election, Roosevelt's recent success in office upon the assassination of William McKinley gives him a political boost. New York City's predominantly Republican values leave little doubt about which name a majority of tonight's audience will be checking off on the ballot come morning; Roosevelt has carried every region but the South in his campaigning efforts thus far. Nonetheless, Broadway occasionally attracts a few guests from the slightly less liberal states of Maryland and Pennsylvania, and this evening's house is no different; the Liberty Theatre is filled with men of opposing political views. A nervous excitement fills the room; a combination of political gossip, predictions about how Cohan's first Broadway musical will compare to his earlier comedic works and vaudeville skits, and occasional gasps and awestruck sighs from spectators who are seeing the inside of the Liberty Theatre for the first time since its very recent grand opening at 234 West 42nd Street. The twenty-thousand-square-foot theatre, with its dramatic stage, extensive balconies, and striking cathedrallike ceilings is the perfect home for the unfolding of Broadway, a theatrical form and style that America will come to call its own. As the house lights dim and the violins hum a piercing A note, other members of the orchestra slowly begin tuning their individual instruments. As the oboists finish adjusting their pitch, the conductor taps his music stand: musicians tilt their gaze to the front of the pit, audience members sink into the velvet of their plush seats and begin to quiet their chatter. Blackout.


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1. A version of this mise-en-scène appears in my dissertation, Masks in Disguise: Exposing Minstrelsy and Racial Representation within American Tap Dance Performances of the Stage, Screen, and Sound Cartoon, 1900–1950 (Ph.D. diss., Culture & Performance Studies, University of California, Los Angeles), Ann Arbor: ProQuest/UMI, 2016.

2. Little Johnny Jones did a trial run on 10 October 1904 in Hartford, Connecticut and because of its great success there, opened on Broadway less than a month later.

3. Clifford K. Berryman (1869–1949) was a Pulitzer Prize–winning political satirist and cartoonist. Within his fifty-year career he worked extensively for the Washington Star and Washington Post, but he is perhaps best known for accidentally inventing the famous Teddy Bear that would forever be associated with Theodore Roosevelt.

4. See, for example, glowing Associated Press reviews from the show's preview run in Pennsylvania and Delaware: Harrisburg Daily Independent, 28 October 1904; Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, 29 October 1904; The (Wilmington) News Journal, 31 October 1904; The Scranton Republican, 5 November 1904.

5. Gottschild, Brenda Dixon, Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998). See also Thompson, Robert Farris, Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music (Pittsburgh: Periscope Publishing, 2011).

6. See Malone, Jacqui, Steppin’ on the Blues (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996).

7. This is a reference to a song written and performed by Sam Cook and Jim Stevens between the years 1906 and 1919. See Moon, Krystyn R., Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s–1920s (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 136.

8. Stearns, Marshall and Stearns, Jean, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 64.

9. Ibid., 66.

10. Ibid., 65.

11. Many stock characters existed on the minstrel stage, including the three most popular: Jim Crow, who represented the simpleton or dumb fool; Long Tail Blue, who epitomized the dandy figure; and Zip Coon, signifying the ambivalent character who straddled the fool and the dandy, with ostentatious dress and undignified speech. For an analysis of how the juxtaposition of these three archetypes on the minstrel stage simultaneously created and threatened racial and class binaries, see Lewis, Barbara, “Daddy Blue: The Evolution of the Dark Dandy,” in Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrels, ed. Bean, Annemarie, Hatch, James V., and McNamara, Brooks (Hanover, NH: UPNE for Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 257–72.

12. Stearns and Stearns, 63–4.

13. The Keith and Orpheum circuits played the leading theatres, highlighting white performers in blackface makeup and, in special cases, “real” black acts (Williams and Walker and Cooper and Robinson being two of the most famous teams). In 1914, Sherman Dudley established TOBA (Theatre Owner's Booking Association, or “Tough on Black Asses”) as an all-black vaudeville union. See Frank, Rusty F., Tap!: The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories, 1900–1955 (New York: William Morrow, 1990), 37. While white vaudeville primarily toured the northern states and the West Coast, TOBA performers played the racist southern states and were paid on a much lower pay scale than performers who found work within the white circuits. Ibid., 38. Additionally, artists who toured with TOBA had to conform to the racist rules of their patrons, e.g., entering through service doors of the venues that booked them. Although the establishment of a black vaudeville circuit meant that more people of color could perform on the American stage, it also placed a serious divide between black talent and white. Black performers who graced the white stage were the exception, and even those exceptions had stringent rules. At this time the country had a “two-colored” rule, which stated that black people were allowed to perform on the vaudeville stage only in pairs or small groups. See Haskins, Jim and Mitgang, N. R., Mr. Bojangles: The Biography of Bill Robinson (New York: William Morrow, 1988), 91.

14. See Forbes, Camille F., Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America's First Black Star (New York: Basic Civitas Book, 2008), 44–5.

15. Despite the popularity of and success with vaudeville-type skits that Williams and Walker experienced, the duo also produced shows that contained multiple acts—including full-length shows like In Dahomey (1903), which received such acclaim and profitable returns, that the production moved to Broadway. Still, this was a rare exception, especially for performers of color. Ibid., 102–28.

16. The libretto alludes to Mrs. Kentworth's prestige within a prominent group known as the San Francisco Female Reformers. Although the script does not outline what specifically were her reform efforts, this group was known for trying to achieve more equal rights for women around the turn of the century up through the 1920s. This included, but was not limited to, securing eight-hour workdays and a minimum wage for women working in the factories.

17. Associated Press, San Francisco Chronicle, 13 March 1906.

18. See, for example, Hartman, Saidiya V., Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

19. Metzger, Sean, Chinese Looks: Fashion, Performance, Race (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 56–7.

20. George M. Cohan, “Little Johnny Jones,” excerpt from libretto; iBooks, act 2: 66. The libretto is also available online at, accessed 24 January 2018.

21. Ibid., act 3: 86–7.

22. Ibid., act 1: 2.

23. A highbinder is generally defined as an assassin or swindler, particularly one belonging to a Chinese American secret society.

24. Cohan, “Little Johnny Jones,” act 1: 31.

25. Lott, Eric, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 40–9, quote at 48.

26. The Geary Act, passed by California congressman Thomas Geary in May 1892, extended the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 for another ten years and enforced harsher parameters, including a requirement for all Chinese in America to obtain and carry with them certificates of residency. Failure to do so would result in deportation. See Lee, Erica, At America's Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882–1943 (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 42, 225; Geary Act (27 Stat. 25), sec. 7, and McCreary Amendment (28 Stat. 7), sec. 2.

27. Shimakawa, Karen, National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 6.

28. In 1890 Jacob Riis published his famous study How the Other Half Lives and instigated movements to reform living standards across the nation. The United States Immigration Bureau opened Ellis Island in 1892 to speed up the immigration process. This included thorough medical evaluations that determined whether someone was “fit” for entry.

29. Moon, 133.

30. Metzger, 32.

31. The California Gold Rush of 1849 brought the greatest influx of Chinese immigrants, and the flow continued steadily into California until about 1870, when Chinese immigrants started settling in big cities throughout the United States. In addition to gold, California offered the land necessary for labor, agriculture, and mining that supported most of the Chinese American economy. See Daniels, Roger, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life, 2d ed. (New York: Harper Perennial, 2002), 239–46.

32. Moon, 46.

33. Shimakawa, 17.

34. Queue, also spelled cue, refers to a hairdo worn typically by men. This very long ponytail or braid was adopted by the Manchu people (Qing dynasty) in the seventeenth century. See Michael Godley, “The End of the Queue: Hair as Symbol in Chinese History,” East Asian History 8 (December 1994): 53–72; reprinted in Chinese Heritage Quarterly 27 (September 2011),, accessed 8 January 2015.

35. This sketch is full of caricature, including the markings on one of the two pails of water this man carries. The right pail reads, “SLOP Chewy,” a play on Chop Suey, a line that continuously reappears throughout the show.

36. Metzger, 42–3.

37. Moon, 116.

38. Ibid., 116–17.

39. Cohan, “Little Johnny Jones,” act 1: 29–30.

40. Ibid., act 1: 29–30.

41. Ibid., act 1: 30.

42. Historically the use of chromatic embellishments, such as those found in this piece, have been used to signify the Oriental. Brynn Shiovitz, e-mail correspondence with musicologist Alex Grabarchuk, 4 July 2017.

43. Moon, 48–9.

44. See score for “Chinese Entrance” (reproduced herein in part as Fig. 1) from George M. (George Michael) Cohan (1878–1942) / Museum of the City of New York, 68.123.200A.

45. A musical form in which lyrics are spoken in a manner similar to speaking but the vocalist still changes pitches, as if singing. This recitativelike style was popular in late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century German operas and American musical dramas (e.g., Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady).

46. “Eccentric dancing” is the name given to any style of dancing that contains out of the ordinary, comical, grotesque, acrobatic, or shticky movement. Cohan possessed a certain rubbery quality as he moved, which is one of the reasons that James Cagney was a good dance replica of Cohan in the 1942 film. Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker was known as one of the most famous eccentric dancers. See Stearns and Stearns, 231–8.

47. Stop-time is a form of accompaniment in tap dancing, jazz, and blues music that interrupts, or stops, the normal time and features regular accented notes on the first beat of each or every other measure. The musician or dancer will then alternate these beats with silence(s) or (usually improvised) solo(s). See Randel, Don Michael, The Harvard Dictionary of Music (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 841.

48. Brynn Shiovitz, “Exchanging “Coon” for Cork: George M. Cohan and Sonic Minstrelsy at the Fin de Siècle,” in Dancing the African Diaspora, ed. Thomas DeFrantz (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming).

49. In 1942, just days before Cohan died, Warner Bros. released his biographical musical, Yankee Doodle Dandy, starring James Cagney as George M. Cohan. Cohan's discontent with certain elements of the film, however, combined with stringent Production Code rules, prompted some alterations to the story during the production process, including the removal of all but one very short blackface scene. See McGilligan, Patrick, Yankee Doodle Dandy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, for the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, 1981).

50. In 1894 M. Witmark & Sons published Cohan's first song, the ballad Why Did Nellie Come Home. Following this first acceptance with a major publisher, Cohan began publishing numerous coon songs that were set in 2/4 time. This is the only one of his songs that the prestigious M. Witmark & Sons accepted at the time. Although there is no proof that the other Cohan songs were trash—as the Witmarks claimed—personal letters show that the avant-garde publisher did not appreciate Cohan's then-comic style. See Witmark, Isidore and Goldberg, Isaac, The Story of the House of Witmark: From Ragtime to Swingtime (New York: L. Furman, 1939).

51. Ragtime: Its History, Composers, and Music, ed. Edward, John Hasse (New York: Schirmer Books, 1985), 71.

52. Schafer, William and Riedel, Johannes, The Art of Ragtime: Form and Meaning of an Original Black American Art (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973), 5.

53. While having a complete understanding of public perception is impossible, I have gleaned a fair amount of knowledge from newspapers that offer reviews of The Four Cohans and George's solo work onstage. Examining the trend in sales of Cohan's sheet music also offers a glimpse into the level of public interest in, and overall success of, his musical compositions.

54. Here I understand the black body in terms of Julia Kristeva's concept of abjection, where minstrelsy simultaneously attracts and repulses those individuals with whom it comes into contact. See Kristeva, Julia, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).

55. Cohan, George M. and Davies, Syd, “The Warmest Baby in the Bunch: Ethiopian Ditty” (New York: George L. Spaulding, 1897), sheet music.

56. Cohan, George M., “The Yankee Doodle Boy” (New York: F.A. Mills, 1904), sheet music.

57. Shiovitz, forthcoming.

58. Put into effect on 27 April 1904, this law was meant to extend the treaty of 1894, “continuing without modification, limitation, or condition, all laws then in force in so far as they were not inconsistent with treaty obligations.” See Jenks, Jeremiah Whipple and Lauck, William Jett, The Immigration Problem (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1912), 320.

59. United States v. Ju Toy (198 U.S. 253, 1905).

60. Discography of American Historical Recordings, s.v. “Victor matrix B-2874. Good bye Flo / Haydn Quartet; Billy Murray,” accessed 5 July 2017,

61. A common name for a generic British soldier, especially during the nineteenth century up through WWI.

62. I have no evidence to confirm this, but this song's title might derive from an 1893 court case, Fong Yue Ting v. United States (149 U.S. 698) which challenged the provisions of the Geary Act of 1892.

63. See, for example, Associated Press, The Scranton (Pennsylvania) Republican, 5 November 1904.

64. The third page of music appears to be missing. Brynn Shiovitz, conversation with Ed Archer, 7 July 2017.

65. Courtesy of the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

66. Yung, Judy, Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 1551.

67. Lee, Erica, At America's Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882–1943 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 26–7, quote at 26.

68. Ibid., 26.

69. The Page Act was the first of many immigration laws that prohibited the immigration of anyone from “China, Japan, or any Oriental country” for the purposes of contracted labor, specifically for immoral and indecent purposes. By banning a large percentage of women from Asian countries, the law limited the number of Chinese babies that could be born on American soil and challenged the masculinity of Chinese men. See 43rd Congress, Sess. II, Chap. 141; 18 Stat 477.

70. Stencell, A. W., Girl Show: Into the Canvas World of Bump and Grind (Toronto: ECW Press, 1999), 47, quote at 5.

71. Little Egypt was the name given to World's Fair dancer Fahreda Mazar Spyropoulos (Fatima), then later assigned to Ashea Wabe (ca. 1896), and finally became a catchall term for “Oriental-style” belly dance that included the hoochie-coochie. In 1931 Minsky's Burlesque show would coin this type of dancing “striptease.” Ibid., 5–7.

72. Ibid., 6.

73. See Houchin, John H., Censorship of the American Theatre in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 52–3.

74. I have based this reconstruction on the show's libretto, score, original program, and a few reviews that followed Johnny’s opening performance.

75. On 11 September 1959, the George M. Cohan Memorial Fund dedicated the George M. Cohan statue in Duffy Square (Central Time Square at Broadway and 46th Street). Architect Otto Langman and Sculptor Georg John Lober constructed a monumental 8′ 7′′ figure that sits atop a 6′ 11½′′ pedestal and 5½′′ base. Cohan's presence literally oversees New York City's theatre district; see NYC Parks, “Father Duffy Square: George M. Cohan,”, accessed 24 January 2018.

76. Cohan, “Little Johnny Jones,” act 3: 97–8. Here the words “and so on” are part of the dialogue, not a direction to the actor to say whatever caricatured names come to mind on the spot. Also, R.1.E is a script typo, and should read as 1.E.R (first entrance right).

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Queue the Music: Cohan's Yellowface Substitution in Little Johnny Jones

  • Brynn Shiovitz


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