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Who was Will Rogers?

Who was Will Rogers?

By Erin Lafferty, Education & Outreach Manager

EARLY LIFE

"I was born on November 4, which is election day ... my birthday has made more men and sent more back to honest work than any other days in the year."

Clem Rogers Mary Rogers
Will's parents, Clem and Mary Rogers

Will was born in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) on November 4, 1879 to Clem and Mary Rogers. Both of his parents were of Cherokee and European descent, had grown up in Cherokee communities, and attended Cherokee schools. Will was the youngest of 8 children born to Mary and Clem, but sadly, 3 died in infancy. Though Clem faced adversity following the Civil War, by the time Will was born, he was one of the most successful men in the Territory and owned an enormous cattle ranch. Like most children living on the frontier, Will worked the ranch from the time he could walk, riding horses and swinging a rope. 

SCHOOL & EDUCATION

“A man only learns in two ways, one by reading, and the other by association with smarter people."

Will spent his childhood on the western frontier surrounded by kids of all different races, family backgrounds, and religions, and they all attended school together. Though he bounced from school to school (at times being expelled for preferring to practice rope tricks over going to class), he eventually graduated from a secondary school in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, called Willie Halsell College. Clem sent Will to college at Scarritt Collegiate Institute in Missouri, but again Will was expelled for excessive roping. Clem made one more attempt at bolstering Will’s education and enrolled him in Kemper Military School in Missouri, but Will left after a short time.

DRIFTING COWBOY

Following his brief stint in military school, Will drifted around the southwest from the Oklahoma panhandle to New Mexico and even California before circling back home in 1899. By this time the Homestead Act and the Curtis Act had changed completely the landscape of the Territory, and Clem’s ranch had shrunk significantly in size. Even so, he sent Will and a friend to run the land in his stead while he established the first bank in the town of Claremore. During this time Will entered his first roping contest, and he won in Claremore that year. Eventually Will grew restless running his father’s ranch, and he headed to Argentina where he was determined to become a gaucho. He made it to Buenos Aires (via New Orleans, New York, and England) but quickly realized that there were hundreds of men competing for the same few jobs. When a job came up tending cattle on a boat sailing for South Africa, Will jumped at the opportunity.

BETTY BLAKE

  Betty and Will Rogers
  Betty and Will Rogers

"We don’t know what we want, but we’re ready to bite somebody to get it." (1930)

1899 was a big year for Will Rogers, as it was also the year he met his future wife, Betty Blake. Betty had moved temporarily to Oologah when she met Will through a mutual friend. They bonded over music: he could carry a tune, and she could play one on the piano. When Betty returned to Arkansas, Will sent her two letters to which she never replied; it would be two years before they spoke again. When they did, it was at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904, where Will was performing in a wild west show. When Betty heard a passerby mention his name, she sent him a note, and he replied inviting her to meet him backstage. About a year later, Will took a trip home, and his sisters invited Betty to visit at the same time. Though Will had sent Betty numerous letters practically begging her to marry him, he barely spoke to her during her visit. A few days after she left, however, he went to her house in Arkansas, asked her to marry him, and insisted she come on the road with him. Betty, not having a very high opinion of entertainers, declined. When Will returned a year and a half later after performing in Europe and all across America, though, she finally agreed to marry him. Immediately following the ceremony, they boarded a train to St. Louis and prepared to tour the Orpheum Circuit. They had a happy, if somewhat hectic, marriage, and had four children: Will Jr. (Bill), Mary, James, and Fred (named for Will’s friend, Fred Stone).

BREAKING INTO SHOW BIZ

Will had his first exposure to performing at the St. Louis Fair in 1899 when he was hired to be a plant in a performer’s band. The comedian would bet the audience that he could pull a random musician from the band, and he would rope better than anyone in the audience (Will was the “randomly chosen” musician). It was in South Africa, however, that Will became a professional performer. He was hired as a trick roper in Texas Jack’s Wild West Show & Circus where he also rode a bucking horse and sometimes performed in scenes and reenactments of America’s wild west. Will credits Texas Jack with teaching him the tricks of the show business trade and one skill in particular: when to leave the stage to keep the people wanting more. He returned home to the states and began performing with Colonel Zack Mulhall’s Wild West Show at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904.

A NEW ACT FOR VAUDEVILLE

While Will was performing with Mulhall’s show, he also took an engagement at the Standard Theatre, a vaudeville house. Though they had never seen one done before, Will, Mulhall, and their friend Theo McSpadden came up with the idea for a trick roping act on stage. The act was a hit, and Will accompanied Mulhall to New York, where he made his debut at Madison Square Garden on April 27, 1905. During one of these shows, a full-grown steer spooked, ran into the ring, and headed for the stands that were packed with onlookers. Will acted quickly: he threw his rope, caught the steer’s horns, and pulled it back to the ring. The incident made major news headlines, and Will took that publicity straight to the theater managers. Soon Will was playing vaudeville impresario Willie Hammerstein’s rooftop spot at the Victoria and earning rave reviews. During his time at the Victoria, Will began developing the dialogue of his act with no script, preparation, or forewarning to the orchestra. His naturalistic way of speaking and addressing people worked, and he never scripted his performances, preferring to talk off the cuff about whatever was on his mind. Soon, he was on his way to play the most important houses in Europe: the Winter Garden in Berlin, the Palace in London, and the Ranelagh Club (where, he learned later, Edward VII had been in the audience).

WILL MEETS MR. ZIEGFELD

"This would be a great world to dance in if we didn't have to pay the fiddler." (1930)

  Will Rogers and the Follies Girls
  Will Rogers backstage with the 1924 Ziegfeld Follies cast. 
Image courtesy of Will Rogers Memorial Museum.

When Will returned from Europe he spent a year on the Orpheum Circuit before landing a two-week engagement at the Midnight Frolic, a property of none other than Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. The audiences at the Frolic were unique in that many of them came to the show every night, and Will learned quickly that he could not use the same material two shows in a row. It was at the Frolic that he first began reading from newspapers and commenting on the headlines. Though Mr. Ziegfeld had intended to fire Will, he couldn’t deny the popularity of the newspaper bit, and he extended Will’s contract one week at a time. During this engagement Will developed his natural rapport with audiences that made them feel at ease, his trademark as a performer. In the spring of 1916, Ziegfeld finally invited Will to join the Follies. Now, Will was doing two shows per night in addition to two matinees per week; he bought three different newspapers a day to keep up with the headlines as they were published. Though Will never signed a

contract with Mr. Ziegfeld—he was a man of his word, after all—he worked for him for 10 years.

WILL ROGERS GOES TO HOLLYWOOD

"I never miss a good chance to shut up." 

Though Will’s first venture into film was in silent pictures, by the time he moved to Hollywood the industry was booming. He landed his first role through his friend, actor Fred Stone, and his wife. The film did well at the box office, and the producer offered him a two-year contract making films in Hollywood. At the end of the two years, Will had made 12 pictures. Will then decided to follow in the footsteps of some other actors in Hollywood and try his hand at writing, producing, directing, and starring in his own films. He made three of them: Fruits of the Faith, The Ropin’ Fool (which can be found online even today), and One Day in 365


Watch Will Rogers' silent film The Ropin' Fool

COLUMNIST & HUMORIST

"All I know is what I read in the papers." (1923)

Following his solo venture in Hollywood, Will found an agent to schedule him for after-dinner talks and lectures, a common form of social entertainment at the time. During these talks, Will interacted with people from extremely diverse backgrounds and discovered that he could find common ground with just about anyone, a trait that would serve him well throughout his lifetime. In December of 1922, Will started writing a weekly syndicated newspaper column—commenting humorously on affairs both foreign and domestic—for The New York Times; his column would be in syndication throughout the country for 13 years. Also for The Times, Will started writing a series of quippy daily telegrams, and the installment—called “Will Rogers Says” —was for 9 years featured in more than 500 newspapers in the United States with forty million readers. Later he was hired by The Saturday Evening Post to embark on a tour of Europe (during which he did everything, from meeting the Prince of Wales to interviewing Mussolini to attending the Preliminary Conference on Disarmament in Geneva)  to write a series of articles for the magazine called “Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President.”

CLICK HERE to read Will Rogers' syndicated column The Daily Telegram

POLITICS & HUMANITARIANISM

"Everything is changing in America. People are taking the comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke." 

In December of 1926, the residents of Beverly Hills unceremoniously appointed Will as mayor. A passage from his acceptance speech sums up his opinion on the topic:

“They say I’ll be a comedy mayor. Well, I won’t be the only one. I never saw a mayor yet that wasn’t comical. As to my administration, I won’t say I’ll be exactly honest, but I’ll agree to split 50-50 with you and give the town an even break. I’m for the common people, and as Beverly Hills has no common people I won’t have to pass out any favors.”

Since his appointment to mayor followed no legal protocol, he was swiftly deposed. Will had important work to do in 1927 anyway, when a huge flood overcame the Mississippi Valley and the federal government was reluctant to allocate the necessary funds for relief. Will was relentless in his calls for aid in his column and articles and even pointed out the obvious racism against the people of the valley, most of whom were black. For the first, but not the last, time in his career, Will took relief efforts into his own hands. He asked Mr. Ziegfeld to donate the use of a theater so he could put on a benefit for the flood victims; he raised over $65,000. The following year in 1928, Will Rogers was “nominated” as the presidential candidate for the fictitious “Anti-Bunk Party” by the humor magazine Life. It was not the first presidential election in which Will would receive write-in votes; two Arizona delegates to the 1924 Democratic Convention had cast their votes for Will Rogers, and he received a smattering of write-ins during that national election. When the Stock Market crashed in 1929, however, it was back to relief efforts for his fellow Americans. Throughout the Great Depression, Will advocated constantly for those suffering the worst and shamelessly exposed legislators’ inaction. After a failed meeting with President Hoover to secure more funds for the Red Cross, Will again set out to raise the money himself. He embarked on a charity tour, taking on the cost of production, travel, and expenses himself, and raised over $225,000 in 18 days.

THE “TALKIES”

   Will Rogers in A Connecticut Yankee
  Will Rogers in A Connecticut Yankee

"The movies are the only business where you can go out front and applaud yourself." 

1929 also marked Will’s return to Hollywood with the advent of “talkies”: films with sound. His first was They Had to See Paris, and it premiered in September of that year. He was so nervous to hear himself talk on screen that he took a sudden trip home to Oklahoma the day before the premiere; he only returned when Betty had wired him that the premiere had gone well and he could come home. After his first talkie, Will was hooked, though he never did memorize his lines, preferring instead to improvise on whatever topic he found most intriguing when he read the script (and he only read it once). He made several notable films in the thirties, including: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, David Harum, The County Chairman, State Fair, Life Begins at Forty, and Steamboat ‘Round the Bend. Though Will resided and worked in Hollywood and was certainly very famous, he never became a “Hollywood star” type, and he continued to dress simply in his jeans, boots, and Stetson hat and was friendly to the public, frequently interrupting filming to visit with tourists. By 1932 he was in the top 10 box office stars, leading the pack at number 1 in 1934 (he dropped to second in 1935, after Shirley Temple). 

WILL ON THE RADIO

As a performer best known for his conversational style of speaking, radio was perhaps the form of mass entertainment best suited to Will. He did a few broadcasts in the early twenties that built on his newspaper column, but it wasn’t until the Great Depression that he truly made his mark there. In October of 1931, President Herbert Hoover invited Will to give a joint address on the topic of unemployment relief in a live national radio broadcast. While it is impossible to say what, if any, impact the broadcast had on unemployment figures, that President Hoover reached out to Will – one of his own biggest critics, particularly on his handling of the Depression – proves that Will’s ability to connect with his fellow citizens and boost morale was unmatched. In 1932, Will signed a contract with Gulf Oil Company to do a series of radio talks as part of his continued fundraising efforts for those struggling through the Depression. His contract stipulated that he would earn $5,000 for each broadcast; $2,500 of which would be donated to the Red Cross while the other half went to the Salvation Army. The series, which aired on Sunday evenings at 9pm, continued for 2 years. Radio was an adjustment for Will, however, and he often found himself being cut off mid-sentence because he was not accustomed to speaking within a time constraint. Finally, Will started bringing a wind-up alarm clock with him, and when the alarm buzzed, he would finish his thought and sign off. It helped Will stay within his time frame, and audiences ate up the comedy of it.


Watch one of Will Rogers' radio broadcasts

AVIATION

"Heroing is one of the shortest-lived professions there is." (1925)

Throughout his adult life, Will was completely fascinated with airplanes and aviation and wrote in his columns that he believed it to be the mode of transportation of the future (this was not the only topic on which Will was particularly prescient; he had also all but predicted the Stock Market Crash of 1929 as well as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential campaign in his column). He met pilots and befriended them, including the famous Charles Lindbergh, and by the time he died he had flown with most of the great aviators of his time. Unfortunately, Will’s complete trust in his friends and his unbridled sense of adventure would be his downfall, and he and acclaimed aviator and fellow Oklahoman Wiley Post died in a plane crash near Barrow, Alaska on August 15, 1935.

Will Rogers and Wiley Post
Will Rogers and Wiley Post

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