Will Rogers

Will Rogers Will Rogers was a cowboy that did rope tricks. He was loved by the crowds that watched him. Onto the stage ambled a friendly-faced, tousled-haired man wearing a cowboy getup and carrying a collection of lassos in his hand. He smiled at the audience, then threw out one of the ropes, twirling it in a circle in preparation for one of the complicated rope tricks he was hired to perform. But as he went into the trick, he miscalculated the size of the small stage, and the rope whacked into the backdrop and fell to the ground with a loud thud.

The audience was silent as the obviously embarrassed cowboy reached down and picked it up. Without a word, he tried the trick a second time. Again, the rope slammed loudly onto the stage floor. Show directors had a standard way of dealing with such a disasters-get the performer away from the audience as fast as possible, or giveem the hook in the theater parlance. As the curtain came down on the rope twirler, Buck thought sadly that the curtain had probably been drawn on the young hopefuls career. To his surprise, the audience was thinking differently.

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Instead of hurling jeers and catcalls, people here and there began to clap, and soon the entire theater was filled with the sound of applauses. The curtain went back up, but when the audience saw another musical number was next, they booed and hooted, demanding the return of the clumsy cowboy. They did not care that he had botched his act-there was something so appealing about him that the audience just wanted to see more of him. -2 The curtain went back down; after a few tense moments, it rose again as the cowboy, his smile even broader this time out, sauntered back onstage. The act went well this time out, and the audience responded with a standing ovation. Buck was impressed.

It did not take too much imagination to recognize that he had found a real crowd pleaser.1 In 1915, Will was becoming a follies star. He quickly got bored of his act. By 1915, Rogers had become a staple of the vaudeville circuit. He had no trouble getting jobs, and his act inevitably drew raves from the critics and the public alike. Recognition and good pay were not quite enough for Rogers, however, for he quickly grew bored doing the same type of act over and over.

A man of tremendous energy, Rogers always had to have new challenges in order to maintain the level of concentration he needed to be at his absolute best as a performer.2 War World I helped Wills career. He became a cracker-box humorist. In the Follies his famous line, Well, all I know is what I read in the papers, introduced new highlights which he learned to bring into homely but unexpected focus. I never told a story in my life, he once said. What little humor Ive got pertains to now.

What the Civil War had been to earlier cracker-box humorists, and the Spanish-American War to Mr. Dooley, the First World War became to the rising star of Will Rogers-and continued through its sequels from the Peace Conference (The United States never lost a war or won a conference) to the Coolidge bull market (Two thirds of the people promote while one-third provide). As a Westerner, Rogers understood the Virginians famous formula, When you say that, smile! With a jesters immunity he deflated rhetoric, buncombe, and group smugness; and surprisingly few tempers were lost. 3 -3 Will started writhing newspaper articles in 1922. He was a popular writer.

In November 1922 Rogers had begun a long series of weekly articles for The New York Times and the Times from London, July 29, 1926, about Lady Astors visit to Manhattan, set the tradition of his daily telegram, one terse paragraph that curbed his genial wordiness and proved to be his most popular medium. Syndication carried it to some 350 newspapers, with an estimated 40,000,000 readers. Writing almost constantly of politics, and belonging nominally to the Democratic party (because its funnier to be a Democrat), Rogers wisely chose the nonpartisan point of view.4 Will loved to travel. Even if it could cost him his life. In the late summer of 1935 he planned a flight north to the Orient with his fellow Oklahoman, Wiley Post [q.v.].

About fifteen miles from Point Barrow, Alaska, on Aug. 15, their monoplane developed engine trouble and, with an Eskimo hunter as sole spectator, crashed into shallow water, killing both pilot and passenger. 5 Will Rogers was born on Nov. 4, 1879. His parents were Clement Vann Rogers and Mary Shrimpsher. Will Rogers, cowboy, humorist, actor, news commentator, christened William Penn Adair Rogers, was born four miles northeast Oologah, Indian Territory, near the present town of Claremore, Okla. His father, Clement Vann Rogers, prosperous rancher and banker of mixed Irish and Cherokee blood, sat high in the councils of the Cherokee Nation and in 1906-7 served as a member of the constitutional convention when Oklahoma was admitted to the Union.

Mary Schrimpsher, a graduate of the Indian Female Seminary at -4 Tahlequah, had become his wife in 1859. The humorist was their third son, the only one to reach maturity, and the eighth and youngest child. Proud of his Indian blood from both parents, Will Rogers once told a Boston audience: My ancestors didnt come on the Mayflower-they met the boat.6 Will quit school in search of fame. He joined a wild west circus as the Cherokee Kid. In 1898 he abruptly quit school to become a cowboy in the Texas Panhandle. Still restless, he sailed for the Argentine in 1902, crossed by cattle-boat to South Africa, and there late in the same year joined Texas Jacks Wild West Circus as The Cherokee Kid, rope artist and rough rider.

After further trouping in Australia he reached home in 1904, in time to appear in the tanbark ring at the St. Louis exposition. He made his New York Debut at Madison Square Garden, Apr. 23, 1905, as a member of Col. Zach Mulhalls outfit.7 Will decided to become a follies star again. He needed the money to pay off debts.

Back in New York, Rogers took up his old job as a Follies star. Though his salary was good, it was not enough to pay off the debts left over from his film company, keep up with the mortgage payments on the Beverly Hills house, and finance frequent visits by Betty to the East and trips home to see his children in the West. Still, as in the past, Will Rogers was easily able to find a new audience happy to pay for a chance to hear his wit and wisdom. He became an after-dinner speaker, performing at events always sold out.8 Will was a very generous person. He gave money to the Red Cross.

His generosity in giving to charity, and in raising funds on tour, for the Red Cross in the First World War, after the Mississippi flood of 1927, and during the depression winter and spring of 1931, vastly strengthened his hold upon popular affection. His -5 legend, as the cowboy philosopher with a cool brain and warm heart, was far more significant than anything he ever said or wrote.9 A statue of Will was put in Washington. It was unveiled on June 6, 1939. A statue of Rogers, was executed by his friend Jo Davidson and presented by the State of Oklahoma, was unveiled with appropriate ceremonies in the Capitol, Washington, June 6, 1939.10.