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Will Rogers — An American Legend

by Joseph H. Carter
(former director of the Will Rogers Memorial Museums of Oklahoma and author of the 1991 Avon book,
Never Met A Man I Didn’t Like: The Life and Writings of Will Rogers.
Used with permission)

Born on the American frontier, a part-Indian and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Will Rogers was a product of the Nineteenth Century.

Talented, human and wise, Will Rogers became one of the world’s most beloved figures during the first third of the Twentieth Century.

During the last decade of the Twentieth Century, his fame soared anew as the award-winning Broadway musical, The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue, relived his incredible career and dozens of new books were published on his life.

For the Twenty-first Century, Will Rogers is nominated as a role model. Will Rogers’ timeless words, unmatched wit and lasting worth remain applicable and important.

Will Rogers was born in Indian Territory and saw it transformed into Oklahoma.

From this frontier, Will Rogers became a performer in wild west shows, an accomplished trick roper, a vaudeville actor, star of the Ziegfeld Follies, a national syndicated newspaper columnist, the world’s premier radio commentator, star of seventy-one motion pictures, an advisor of presidents and a kindly critic of Congress. Will Rogers, in short, lived an incredible life.

The Will Rogers Memorial Commission oversees the magnificent nine-gallery museum in Claremore, Oklahoma, with its compelling exhibits of Will Rogers’ life. It also is the site of the tomb where Will Rogers rests peacefully with his family.

At nearby Oologah, also in Rogers County, Oklahoma, the Will Rogers Memorial maintains the birthplace of Will Rogers: the unique “White House on the Verdigris River” and an adventuresome 1879 living history ranch stocked with historic Texas Longhorn cattle, sheep, pigs, fowl, horses and other farm animals.

Daily tours can be made through the log-walled house of Will Rogers’ birth, which provides a glimpse into the origin of this fabled American humorist-philosopher. Oklahoma is the roots–and the two attractions hold the keys—to Will Rogers’ greatness. You are invited to visit Oklahoma, to see the ranch and the museum and to learn the lessons Will Rogers taught us. Recognize the deep meaning of his wondrous words: “I Never Met A Man I Didn’t Like.”

The Ropin Fool, a classic silent film

The Ropin Fool was a twenty-two-minute silent film produced by Will Rogers and directed by Clarence Badger with Marcel Le Picard as the talented cameraman. It was Hollywood’s first commercial try at slow-motion photography.

At age forty-two, Will Rogers saw a need to demonstrate and preserve on film the incredible feats possible with a rope…a lariat, the cowboy’s work tool.

As a youngster on his father’s ranch in Indian Territory, Will Rogers learned from a freed slave and talented cowboy named Dan Walker how to use a lariat to work cattle. Will Rogers literally grew up with a rope in his hand. At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, teenager Will Rogers saw a performing trick roper named Vincente Oropeza thrill crowds with his lariat acumen.

Will Rogers immediately became determined to become the world’s “poet lariat”. He spent endless hours practicing, perfecting and trying new tricks.

Will Rogers dubbed himself “The Ropin’ Fool,” a title that downplayed the poetry of his lariat artistry.

Other players in the riding and roping classic were Irene Rich, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Russ Powell as the medicine doctor, John Ince as the stranger and Bert Sprotte as the sheriff.

More important, as the plot weakens and Will Rogers’ roping improves, the famous “Sheriff of Pawnee,” Buck McKee, rides the Rogers’ family favorite black pony, Dopey, as Will Rogers performs his roping feats, many never duplicated.

The plot for The Ropin’ Fool story was devised mostly to fill the two reels and twenty-two minutes that were commonplace in the world of silent pictures of the early 1920s, the infancy of cinema.

A preview of The Ropin’ Fool in a 1920s magazine, Movie Picture World, commented on the subtitles as “written in conservational tone, provocative of hearty laughter.” Will Rogers wrote them himself. The importance of the picture is, as the reviewer noted, the “bewildering variety of roping stunts” that “afford a permanent record of Will Rogers’ famous stage stunts….” Plentiful use of slow motion photography showed how it was done and dispelled any possible belief that the stunts were faked. “No audience,” the 1920s reviewer opined, “can help but marvel as Rogers throws a figure eight around a galloping horse, or lassoes a rat with a piece of string, or brings to terms a cat melodiously inclined.”

The Ropin’ Fool is a classic of all times. It is a product of the early twenties, when audiences paid their money to watch in silence or perhaps with old style piano players pounding out tunes in theaters across the land.

Despite his roping and riding prowess, Will Rogers seldom played a cowboy in those early days of cinema.

Radio, newspapers and political commentary

Will Rogers was far more widely known for his political punditry, for his writings, his stage acts and his commentary on radio, a fast-growing medium of the day. During the depression days of the 1930s, Will Rogers became the kind, warm and humorous voice of the common man.

Hoping to restore confidence in the economy, an industrialist booked Will Rogers and President Herbert Hoover together in a special radio broadcast on October 18, 1931.

The event attracted newsreel cameras to capture the famous, gum-chewing Will Rogers in an off-the-cuff address. The newsreel entitled the act, “He Chews To Talk.”

The performance became known popularly as “The Bacon and Beans and Limousines” speech, grew in fame and was incorporated into the 1990s Broadway show, The Will Rogers Follies. The speech was performed by Mac Davis at the 1992 National Democratic Convention.

Will Rogers actually was nominated for president in 1932 and personally addressed both the Republican and Democratic conventions that summer.

Star of “talking” pictures

Will Rogers was radio’s pioneer commentator, but he also was the top male box office movie star of the early 1930s.

When sound tracks were added to motion pictures, Will Rogers found a new medium of communication and heightening fame. He was a leading star behind only five-year-old Shirley Temple but still a top money maker for Fox Film Corporation.

Will Rogers signed his first talkie contract with Fox on March 22, 1929, for $600,000 to make four movies. Then came a $1.2 million deal for six pictures the following year.

During a six-year period, Will Rogers starred in twenty-one sound-on-film movies that earned more than a million each in depression-era dollars.

Will Rogers didn’t memorize scripts. He would study the plot and understand the story line then simply talk . . . and with few rehearsals.

Will Rogers for the Supreme Court??

John Ford was tapped by Fox to direct a classic of the South in 1890, Judge Priest, starring Will Rogers in the title role. Ford later told an interviewer that Judge Priest was his favorite film of all time. The eighty-minute, comedy-drama was written by Irvin Cobb.

It was released in 1934 with Will Rogers playing a wise but wily judge so convincingly that President Franklin Roosevelt wrote Rogers: “I suppose the next thing you will be doing is making application for an appointment to the federal bench. I might take you up on that!”

Will Roger Memorial Museum and birthplace ranch

Instead of the federal bench, Will Rogers is presented at the stately, nine-gallery Will Rogers Memorial Museums of Claremore, Oklahoma.

The museum is filled with art, artifacts, writings and exhibits that report on Will Rogers’ extraordinary life. There are interactive television and theatrical settings that help tell the Will Rogers story. The gift shop carries an abundance of materials. Profits are essential to the operation, the upkeep and enrichment of the collection.

In a rich sunken garden is the tomb of Will Rogers. He rests there, along with his wonderful wife, Betty, and other members of his immediate family.

Twelve miles north of the museum, near Oologah, is the Dog Iron Ranch, the birthplace of Will Rogers. It offers living history of 1879, depicting the scene and the flavor of the ranch that delivered Will Rogers to the world.

The log-walled house of Will Rogers’ birth is open daily. There is a grand reconstructed barn, horses and other livestock, including a herd of Texas Longhorn cattle, like those that Will Rogers’ father raised.

Jim Hartz on Will Rogers, a friend of Presidents

The long-time chairman of the Will Rogers Memorial Commission, Jim Hartz, the former NBC newsman and Today Show host, said: “A proud Cherokee, Will Rogers said, ‘my family didn’t come over on the Mayflower–but they met the boat.’

“That Indian legend was a cowboy, a rope artist, a performer in wild west shows, vaudeville and was the star of the Ziegfeld Follies. Will Rogers was the author of six books, 4,000 newspaper columns and had more than two million words published. A champion of aviation, Will Rogers was a friend of presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Franklin Roosevelt, a radio commentator and star of both silent and talkie movies. He also was a loyal and faithful husband beloved and respected by his children.

Will Rogers, a living role model for richer life

Jim Hartz concludes, “Will Rogers was a legend. But, more, he is a living role model, an inspiration to greatness and decency for the Twenty-first Century. Read the books about Will Rogers. Be sure to see The Will Rogers Follies and become a fan of Will Rogers’ seventy-one movies. Your life will be richer. The world will be better.”

[And Jim Hartz might add: be sure to see Randall Reeder or one of the other fine men who perform one-man shows or after-dinner presentations as “Will Rogers”.]

Joseph H. Carter is author of the book, “Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like”.

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