|Rogers in 1922|
|Born||William Penn Adair Rogers|
November 4, 1879
Claremore, Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma)
|Died||August 15, 1935 (aged 55)|
Point Barrow, Alaska Territory
|Cause of death||Airplane crash|
|Spouse(s)||Betty Blake (1908–1935; his death)|
|Children||Will Rogers, Jr.|
Mary Amelia Rogers
James Blake Rogers
Fred Stone Rogers
William Penn Adair Rogers (November 4, 1879 – August 15, 1935) was an American stage and film actor, vaudeville performer, cowboy, humorist, newspaper columnist, and social commentator from Oklahoma. He was a Cherokee citizen born in the Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory.
Known as “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son”, Rogers was born to a Cherokee family in Indian Territory (now part of Oklahoma). As an entertainer and humorist, he traveled around the world three times, made 71 films (50 silent films and 21 “talkies”), and wrote more than 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns.
By the mid-1930s Rogers was hugely popular in the United States, its leading political wit and the highest paid of Hollywood film stars. He died in 1935 with aviator Wiley Post when their small airplane crashed in northern Alaska.
Rogers’s vaudeville rope act led to success in the Ziegfeld Follies, which in turn led to the first of his many movie contracts. His 1920s syndicated newspaper column and his radio appearances increased his visibility and popularity. Rogers crusaded for aviation expansion and provided Americans with first-hand accounts of his world travels. His earthy anecdotes and folksy style allowed him to poke fun at gangsters, prohibition, politicians, government programs, and a host of other controversial topics in a way that found general acclaim from a national audience with no one offended. His aphorisms, couched in humorous terms, were widely quoted: “I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat.”
When I die, my epitaph, or whatever you call those signs on gravestones, is going to read: “I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I dident [sic] like.” I am so proud of that, I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved.
- 1Early years
- 3Personal life
- 5Philosophy and style
- 6Aviation and death
- 8Film and stage portrayals
- 10References and further reading
- 11See also
- 14External links
The White House on the Verdigris River, Will Rogers’ birthplace, near Oologah, Oklahoma
Rogers was born on his parents’ Dog Iron Ranch in the Cherokee Nation of Indian Territory, near present-day Oologah, Oklahoma, now in Rogers County, named in honor of his father, Clem Vann Rogers. The house in which he was born had been built in 1875 and was known as the “White House on the Verdigris River“. His parents, Clement Vann Rogers (1839–1911) and Mary America Schrimsher (1838–1890), were both of mixed-race and Cherokee ancestry, and identified as Cherokee. Rogers was 9/32 (just over 1/4) Cherokee, with the remainder European American. Rogers quipped that his ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower, but they “met the boat”. His mother was one quarter-Cherokee and born into the Paint Clan. She died when Will was 11. His father remarried less than two years after her death. The house in which he was born had been built in 1875 and was known as the “White House on the Verdigris River“.
Rogers was the youngest of eight children. He was named for the Cherokee leader Col. William Penn Adair. Only three of his siblings, sisters Sallie Clementine, Maude Ethel, and May (Mary), survived into adulthood.
His father, Clement, was a leader in the Cherokee Nation. An attorney and Cherokee judge, he was a Confederate veteran. He served as a delegate to the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention. Rogers County, Oklahoma, is named in honor of him. He served several terms in the Cherokee Senate. Clement Rogers achieved financial success as a rancher and used his influence to help soften the negative effects of white acculturation on his people.
Roach (1980) presents a sociological-psychological assessment of the relationship between Will and his father during the formative boyhood and teenage years. Clement had high expectations for his son and wanted him to be more responsible and business-minded. Will was more easygoing and oriented toward the loving affection offered by his mother, Mary, rather than the harshness of his father. The personality clash increased after his mother’s death when the boy was 11. Young Will went from one venture to another with little success. Only after Will won acclaim in vaudeville did the rift begin to heal. Clement’s death in 1911 precluded a full reconciliation.
Will Rogers attended school in Missouri, at the Willow Hassel School at Neosho, and Kemper Military School at Boonville. He was a good student and an avid reader of The New York Times, but he dropped out of school after the 10th grade. Rogers later said that he was a poor student, saying that he “studied the Fourth Reader for ten years”. He was much more interested in cowboys and horses, and learned to rope and use a lariat.
First jobs and British Army
Rogers worked at the Dog Iron Ranch for a few years. Near the end of 1901, when he was 22 years old, he and a friend left home hoping to work as gauchos in Argentina. They arrived in Argentina in May 1902, and spent five months trying to make it as ranch owners in the Pampas. Rogers and his partner lost all their money, and he later said, “I was ashamed to send home for more.” The two friends separated and Rogers sailed for South Africa. It is often claimed he took a job breaking in horses for the British Army, but the Boer War had ended three months earlier. Rogers was hired at James Piccione’s ranch near Mooi River Station in the Pietermaritzburg district of Natal.
Rogers began his show business career as a trick roper in “Texas Jack’s Wild West Circus” in South Africa:
He [Texas Jack] had a little Wild West aggregation that visited the camps and did a tremendous business. 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. I learned a lot about the show business from him. 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.
Grateful for the guidance but anxious to move on, Rogers quit the circus and went to Australia. Texas Jack gave him a reference letter for the Wirth Brothers Circus there, and Rogers continued to perform as a rider and trick roper, and worked on his pony act. He returned to the United States in 1904, appeared at the St. Louis World’s Fair, and began to try his roping skills on the vaudeville circuits.
On a trip to New York City, Rogers was at Madison Square Garden, on April 27, 1905, when a wild steer broke out of the arena and began to climb into the viewing stands. Rogers roped the steer to the delight of the crowd. The feat got front page attention from the newspapers, giving him valuable publicity and an audience eager to see more. Willie Hammerstein saw his vaudeville act, and signed Rogers to appear on the Victoria Roof—which was literally on a rooftop—with his pony. For the next decade, Rogers estimated he worked for 50 weeks a year at the Roof and at the city’s myriad vaudeville theaters.
Rogers later recalled these early years:I got a job on Hammerstein’s Roof at $140 a week for myself, my horse, and the man who looked after it. I remained on the roof for eight weeks, always getting another two-week extension when Willie Hammerstein would say to me after the Monday matinee, ‘you’re good for two weeks more’… Marty Shea, the booking agent for the Columbia, came to me and asked if I wanted to play burlesque. They could use an extra attraction….I told him I would think about it, but ‘Burlesque’ sounded to me then as something funny.” Shea and Sam A. Scribner, the general manager of the Columbia Amusement Company, approached Rogers a few days later. Shea told Scribner Rogers was getting $150 and would take $175. “‘What’s he carrying?’, Scribner asked Shea. ‘Himself, a horse, and a man’, answered Shea.” Scribner replied, “‘Give him eight weeks at $250′”.
In the fall of 1915, Rogers began to appear in Florenz Ziegfeld‘s Midnight Frolic. The variety revue began at midnight in the top-floor night club of Ziegfeld’s New Amsterdam Theatre, and drew many influential—and regular—customers. By this time, Rogers had refined his act. His monologues on the news of the day followed a similar routine every night. He appeared on stage in his cowboy outfit, nonchalantly twirling his lasso, and said, “Well, what shall I talk about? I ain’t got anything funny to say. All I know is what I read in the papers.” He would make jokes about what he had read in that day’s newspapers. The line “All I know is what I read in the papers” is often incorrectly described as Rogers’s most famous punch line, when it was his opening line.
His run at the New Amsterdam ran into 1916, and Rogers’s growing popularity led to an engagement on the more famous Ziegfeld Follies. At this stage, Rogers’s act was strictly physical, a silent display of daring riding and clever tricks with his lariat. He discovered that audiences identified the cowboy as the archetypical American—doubtless aided by Theodore Roosevelt‘s image as a cowboy. Rogers’s cowboy showed an unfettered man free of institutional restraints, with no bureaucrats to order his life. When he came back to the United States and worked in Wild West shows, he slowly began adding the occasional spoken ad lib, such as “Swingin’ a rope’s all right… if your neck ain’t in it.” Audiences responded to his laconic but pointed humor, and were just as fascinated by his frontier Oklahoma twang. By 1916, Rogers was a featured star in Ziegfeld’s Follies on Broadway, as he moved into satire by transforming the “Ropin’ Fool” to the “Talkin’ Fool”. At one performance, with President Woodrow Wilson in the audience, Rogers improvised a “roast” of presidential policies that had Wilson, and the entire audience, in stitches and proved his remarkable skill at off-the-cuff, witty commentary on current events. He built the rest of his career around that skill.
A 1922 editorial in The New York Times said that “Will Rogers in the Follies is carrying on the tradition of Aristophanes, and not unworthily.” Rogers branched into silent films too, for Samuel Goldwyn‘s company Goldwyn Pictures. He made his first silent movie, Laughing Bill Hyde (1918), which was filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Many early films were filmed and produced in the New York area in those years. Rogers could make a film, yet easily still rehearse and perform in the Follies. He eventually appeared in most of the Follies, from 1916 to 1925.
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Hollywood discovered Rogers in 1918, as Samuel Goldwyn gave him the title role in Laughing Bill Hyde. A three-year contract with Goldwyn, at triple the Broadway salary, moved Rogers west. He bought a ranch in Pacific Palisades and set up his own production company. While Rogers enjoyed film acting, his appearances in silent movies suffered from the obvious restrictions of silence, as he had gained his fame as a commentator on stage. He wrote many of the title cards appearing in his films. In 1923, he began a one-year stint for Hal Roach and made 12 pictures. Among the films he made for Roach in 1924 were three directed by Rob Wagner: Two Wagons Both Covered, Going to Congress, and Our Congressman. He made two other feature silents and a travelogue series in 1927. After that, he did not return to the screen until beginning work in the ‘talkies‘ in 1929.
Rogers made 48 silent movies, but with the arrival of sound in 1929, he became a top star in that medium. His first sound film, They Had to See Paris (1929), gave him the chance to exercise his verbal wit. He played a homespun farmer (State Fair) in 1933, an old-fashioned doctor (Dr. Bull) in 1933, a small town banker (David Harum) in 1934, and a rustic politician (Judge Priest) in 1934. He was also in County Chairman (1935), Steamboat Round the Bend (1935), and In Old Kentucky (1935). His favorite director was John Ford.
Rogers appeared in 21 feature films alongside such noted performers as 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. He was directed three times by John Ford. He appeared in four films with his friend Stepin Fetchit (aka Lincoln T. Perry): David Harum (1934), Judge Priest (1934), Steamboat Round the Bend (1935) and The County Chairman (1935).
With his voice becoming increasingly familiar to audiences, Rogers essentially played himself in each film, without film makeup, managing to ad-lib and sometimes work in his familiar commentaries on politics. The clean moral tone of his films resulted in various public schools taking their classes to attend special showings during the school day. His most unusual role may have been in the first talking version of Mark Twain‘s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. His popularity soared to new heights with films including Young As You Feel, Judge Priest, and Life Begins at 40, with Richard Cromwell and Rochelle Hudson.
Newspapers and magazines
Rogers was an indefatigable worker. He toured the lecture circuit. The New York Times syndicated his weekly newspaper column from 1922 to 1935. Going daily in 1926, his short column “Will Rogers Says” reached 40 million newspaper readers. He also wrote frequently for the mass-circulation upscale magazine The Saturday Evening Post. Rogers advised Americans to embrace the frontier values of neighborliness and democracy on the domestic front, while remaining clear of foreign entanglements. He took a strong, highly popular stand in favor of aviation, including a military air force of the sort his flying buddy General Billy Mitchell advocated.
Rogers began a weekly column, titled “Slipping the Lariat Over”, at the end of 1922. He had already published a book of wisecracks and had begun a steady stream of humor books. Through the columns for the McNaught Syndicate between 1922 and 1935, as well as his personal appearances and radio broadcasts, he won the loving admiration of the American people, poking jibes in witty ways at the issues of the day and prominent people—often politicians. He wrote from a nonpartisan point of view and became a friend of presidents and a confidant of the great. Loved for his cool mind and warm heart, he was often considered the successor to such greats as Artemus Ward and Mark Twain. Rogers was not the first entertainer to use political humor before his audience. Others, such as Broadway comedian Raymond Hitchcock and Britain’s Sir Harry Lauder, preceded him by several years. Bob Hope is the best known political humorist to follow Rogers’s example.
Radio was the exciting new medium, and Rogers became a star there as well, broadcasting his newspaper pieces. From 1929 to 1935, he made radio broadcasts for the Gulf Oil Company. This weekly Sunday evening show, The Gulf Headliners, ranked among the top radio programs in the country. Since Rogers easily rambled from one subject to another, reacting to his studio audience, he often lost track of the half-hour time limit in his earliest broadcasts, and was cut off in mid-sentence. To correct this, he brought in a wind-up alarm clock, and its on-air buzzing alerted him to begin wrapping up his comments. By 1935, his show was being announced as “Will Rogers and his Famous Alarm Clock”.
Photograph by Underwood & Underwood, unknown date
In 1908, Rogers married Betty Blake (1879–1944), and the couple had four children: Will Rogers, Jr., Mary Amelia, James Blake, and Fred Stone. Will Jr. became a World War II hero, played his father in two films, and was elected to Congress. Mary became a Broadway actress, and Jim was a newspaperman and rancher; Fred died