John Wesley McGowan Papers, 1927-1954


John McGowan was born on January 12, 1894 in Muskegon, Michigan. He ran away from home when a freshman in high school, making his way to Flint Michigan, and then to Chicago, where he became a singer of illustrated songs for ten dollars a week.

There followed short stints in a two-act with a vaudeville actor and in the chorus of The Winning Miss. The producer of that show kept McGowan for three years in a series of tabloid shows for which he wrote many of thee jokes and songs. After developing a great desire to write for the theatre, McGowan realized that he had to catch up on his reading of the classics in order to fill the serious gaps in his knowledge.

In Danville, Illinois, in 1913, he met Howard Gale, advance-man for the Cohan and Harris road company of Officer 666. Gale invited McGowan to come to New York to meet George M. Cohan when his present contract expired in June, 1914. Unfortunately, at nineteen, McGowan was simply too young to fit the part which Cohan, 36, had written originally for himself.

McGowan got a job with a burlesque show, a position which gave him two years of invaluable theatrical experience. By 1916, he had signed a three year contract with Florenz Ziegfield.

McGowan soon grew tired of simply being a background singer to Ziegfield's beautiful girls, and, in order to break his contract, he enlisted in the army.

When his army service ended in December, 1918, McGowan went to Broadway appearing in five musical plays in the period until March, 1920. About this time, he says, “The period of time indicated they were flops... they were.” But he received good notices and gained valuable experience.

There followed four years under George M. Cohan's management, with writing in off-time. McGowan's first writing success was Two Brides and a Groom, later adapted for the Kieth and Orpheum Circuits. Another version of the play appeared on Broadway as Mama Loves Papa.

Among McGowan's other Broadway plays were: Tenth Avenue (1927); Excess Baggage (1927); Hold Everything (1928); Big Shot (1929); Heads Up (1929): Flying High (1930); Girl Crazy (1930); Pardon My English (1931; Singing the Blues (1931); Hi-Ha Everybody (1932); Strike Me Pink (1932); and Varieties of 1932.

McGowan spent 1933 at M.G.M. in Hollywood without an assignment, returning to Broadway in 1934 with Say When. Back with M.G.M., he wrote twenty-eight screen plays over the next thirteen years.