Spotlight in History: Will Rogers – The Cowboy Humorist

Politics is the best show in America. I love animals and I love politicians, and I like to watch both of ‘em play, either back home in their native state or after they’ve been captured and sent to a zoo – or Washington. Will Rogers, American humorist, performer, actor, real cowboy, 1879 – 1935.

If someone asked me to name the most impressionable and memorable American, it would be a difficult choice considering the many great Americans since the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But I guess, when it comes to talent, wit and good old fashioned humor, my two choices would be Mark Twain and Will Rogers.

His given name was William Penn Adair Rogers, but family and folks just called him Will.
The line that pretty much states what kind of character Will Rogers had:

I never met a man I didn’t like.

Most likely, Mark Twain would have quipped – You sure haven’t met many people, have you?

Will Rogers was born on November 4th, 1879 on the Dog Iron Ranch in Indian Territory, what is now the state of Oklahoma and near the present-day town of Ocologah. The house he was born in was built in 1875 and the family called it the White House on the Verdigris River. His father, Clement Vann Rogers (1839-1911) was of Cherokee blood and so was his mother, Mary America Schrimsher (1838-1890), who was ¼ Cherokee and a hereditary member of the Paint Clan. She died when Will was 11, and his father remarried less than two years after her death.
Clement Rogers would say that his ancestors didn’t arrive in America on the Mayflower, but they met the boat. It may be that Will inherited his humor from his father, who was a well-known figure in the Indian Territory. Clement Rogers was a senator and judge, a Confederate veteran and served as a delegate to the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention.
Will Rogers was the youngest of eight children. He was named after the Cherokee leader Colonel William Penn Adair. He attended the Kemper Military School in Boonville, Missouri, ending his studies after the 10th grade. Will jokingly claimed that he was a poor student and that he studied the Fourth Reader for ten years. His real interest was cowboys and horses, learning to rope and use a lariat – as well as adventure and travel.
Will returned and worked at Dog Iron Ranch for a few years, and in 1901, he and a friend left home to be gauchos in Argentina. They arrived in Argentina in May of 1902 and tried to be ranch owners in the Argentine pampas for five months. They lost all their money, and Will stated:

I was ashamed to send home for more.

The two friends parted company and Will Rogers sailed for South Africa where he obtained employment at Piccione’s Ranch in Moori River Station, as well as breaking horses for the British Army until the British Army no longer required his service. It was at this time he began his career in show business in Texas Jack’s Wild West Circus. Performing as a roper and rider, he learned the art of showmanship from Texas Jack, Will stating:

I did some roping and riding, and Jack, who was one of the smartest showmen I ever knew, took a great interest in me. It was he who gave me the idea for my original stage act with my pony. … He could do a bum act with a rope that an ordinary man couldn’t get away with, and make the audience think it was great, so I used to study him by the hour, and from him I learned the great secret of the show business – knowing when to get off. It’s the fellow who knows when to quit that the audience wants more of.

Will Rogers quit the circus and headed off to Australia. Texas Jack gave him a reference letter to give to the Wirth Brothers Circus there, and Will continued to perform as a rider and trick roper.
On a trip to New York City, Will was at the Madison Square Garden when a wild steer broke out of the arena and began to climb into the spectator stands. Will roped the steer and the crowd cheered. The incident put him on the front page of newspapers. From that the time, Will worked vaudeville after signing up with William Hammerstein to appear on the Victoria Roof with his pony.
In 1908, Will Rogers married Betty Blake and together they had four children. Will Rogers Jr. became a World War II hero, played his father in two films, and became a member of Congress. Mary Amelia Rogers became a Broadway actress, and James Blake (Jim) became a newspaperman and rancher. The youngest of the children, Fred Stone Rogers, died of diphtheria at age two. 
While Rogers was working in New York that is where they lived, but spent summers back home in Oklahoma, once called Indian Territory. Will purchased a 20-acre ranch near Claremore, Oklahoma, where he intended to retire.
By the fall of 1915, Will Rogers was appearing in the night club of Ziegfield’s New Amsterdam Theatre, where people of influence began to be regular visitors of his shows. The show at New Amsterdam continued until 1916, when engagements of the more famous Ziegield Follies began and Will Rogers became one of the stage-filler comedians. The critic views of his rope tricks and satire were in The New York Times and major newspapers. Soon Samuel Goldwyn film studio took notice and Will Rogers branched off into silent films. His first film was Laughing Bill Hyde, filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey in 1918. Since the early films were made near New York City, Will Rogers continued his performances at the Follies from 1916 to 1925.
In 1919, Will Rogers and family moved to the West Coast, when Goldwyn Pictures moved to California to join the rest of the filmmaking industry. In 1923 he performed for one year for Hal Roach in 12 films. Three films Will Rogers made for Hal Roach was directed by Rob Wagner in 1924: Two Wagons Both Covered, Going to Congress and Our Congressman. His last silent film was a travelogue series in 1927 and then returned to the screen in 1929 when the talkies began to take the place of silent films.
Will Rogers was the star of Fox Film, which later would become 20th Century Fox from 1929 to 1935; featuring in 21 films alongside of notable performers: Lew Ayres, Billie Burke, Richard Cromwell, Jane Darwell, Andy Devine, Janet Gaynor, Rochelle Hudson, Boris Karloff, Myrna Loy, Joel McCrea, Hattie McDaniel, Ray Milland, Maureen O’Sullivan, ZaSu Pitts, Dick Powell, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, Mickey Rooney, and Peggy Wood. John Ford directed three of those films.
Will Rogers basically played himself and shunned using Hollywood makeup, and if used, it was minimal. Often he would ad-lib and work in his political commentaries that made him so famous. Because of his appeal to the general public and moral overtones, public schools would sometimes attend his special showings during the school day. His most unusual role was the first talking version of Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
In 1922, Will Rogers began to write a weekly column entitled Slipping the Lariat Over. He had already published books of humor. The column series was for McNaught Syndicate and ran from 1922 to until his death in 1935. He became friends of presidents because his political humor was non-partisan. His satire and warm and friendly character put him with the greats like Artemus Ward and Mark Twain. Following much of Will Rogers’ style of political satire, Bob Hope soon became the best known political humorist after Will Rogers’ death.
From 1925 to 1928, Will Rogers traveled on lecture tours. He started the ‘lectures’ with:

A humorist entertains, and a lecturer annoys.

During this period, Will Rogers became the first civilian to fly from coast to coast with pilots flying air mail. The National Press Club called him the Ambassador at Large of the United States. He visited Mexico City with Charles Lindbergh as a guest of US Ambassador Dwight Morrow, whose daughter Anne, later married Charles Lindbergh.
In 1928, Will Rogers ran for President of the United States and from 1930 to 1935 he made radio broadcasts for the Gulf Oil Company. At the time he would get so involved in subject material he talked about that he would run past his thirty minute show time and get cut off. To prevent that from happening he brought a wind-up alarm clock to warn him his broadcasting time was about up. By 1935, his show was announced as Will Rogers and his famous Alarm Clock.
In 1931 he made a trip to the Orient, Central and South America. In 1934, Will Rogers made a global tour and returned to play the lead in Eugene O’Neill’s stage play, Ah, Wilderness!
In 1934, Will Rogers hosted the 6th Annual Academy Awards Ceremony at the Fiesta Room of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
Politically, he identified himself with the Democratic Party:

I’m not a member of any organized party. I’m a Democrat.

Will Rogers was a vocal supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was even asked once to run for governor of Oklahoma because of his popularity.
In 1935, Wiley Post became interested in running a mail-and-passenger air service from the West Coast of the United States to Russia. Not having much capital, he built a plane from salvaged parts of two different aircraft, the fuselage being the Lockheed Orion and the wings of a wrecked experimental Lockheed Explorer. The extra six feet of the wings of the Lockheed Explorer provided an advantage of an extended range. The aircraft did not have retractable landing gear, so it was fitted with floats for landing in lakes of Alaska and Siberia. Will Rogers would visit Wiley Post often at the airport in Burbank, California while he was modifying his aircraft, and asked Wiley to fly him through Alaska to search for new material for his newspaper column. The floats for his hybrid aircraft had not arrived yet, so he used a set that was designed for a larger plane, which made the aircraft nose-heavy. However, Bryan Sterling researched the floats and aircraft and concluded that the floats were the correct type for the hybrid plane.
Wiley Post made a test flight in July, and then he and Will Rogers flew from Seattle and made several stops in Alaska. While Wiley flew the aircraft, Will would write his column on his typewriter. Before leaving Fairbanks, Alaska they signed and mailed a yacht club burgee that belonged to South Coast Corinthian Yacht Club.
On August 15th, 1935, the two travelers left Fairbanks for Point Barrow. They were a few miles from Point Barrow when they became uncertain of their position because of bad weather and landed in a lagoon to ask directions. On takeoff, the engine failed at low altitude, and the aircraft plunged into the shallow lagoon, shearing off the right wing and the aircraft was sticking out of the shallow water. Both men died instantly on impact.
The nation mourned the humorous folk hero and two statues were erected in Oklahoma where many places and buildings were named after him. In Oklahoma City the airport was named Will Rogers World Airport, as well as the Will Rogers Turnpike. Thirteen public schools have been named Will Rogers in Oklahoma and his birthplace home has become an historical museum. In California there are memorials as well. US Rout 66 is known as the Will Rogers Highway and a plaque dedicated the highway opposite the western termination of Route 66 in Santa Monica. There are memorials in Texas and other national areas. On November 4th, 1949, the United States Post Office produced a commemorative stamp. Sixteen miles from the location of the fatal air crash, the Barrow airport is called the Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport.
In Washington, DC, the statue is at the Capitol Building, and it is customary for the president to rube the left shoe of Will Rogers figure before entering the building to give the State of the Union Address. 
Keith Carradine portrayed Will Rogers in the 1994 film, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. Mr. Carradine also portrayed Rogers three years earlier on Broadway.
Will Rogers filmology is listed at a Wikipedia entry. 

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