Will Rogers

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Portrait of Will Rogers, date unknown.

Will Rogers (born William Penn Adair Rogers, November 4, 1879 – August 15, 1935) was an American cowboy, humorist, vaudeville and film actor, and commentator on national and world affairs. By 1905 he had introduced vaudeville to his famous rope act. Success in the Ziegfeld Follies led in 1918 to the first of his many movie contracts. After 1920 he merged a writing career with his acting and became one of the foremost wits of the era. He also ventured into radio, crusaded for aviation expansion, and provided Americans with first-hand accounts of his world travels. His uncanny ability to make Americans laugh at themselves earned him the title, "prince of wit and wisdom." His earthy anecdotes and folksy style allowed him to poke fun at gangsters, prohibition, politicians, government programs, and a host of other topics in a way that could be readily appreciated by a national audience, with no one offended. His short aphorisms, couched in humorous terms, provided specific advice for improving self and society.

His epigrams were a delight:

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 like." I am so proud of that I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved. And when you come to my grave you will find me sitting there, proudly reading it.[1]

Early life

Rogers was born on November 4, 1879 in Indian Territory, near the modern town of Oologah, Oklahoma. His family were members of the Cherokee tribe and came to Indian Territory during the removals of the 1830s. His father, Clement V. Rogers, was a leader within Cherokee society; he served several terms on the Cherokee Senate. Clement Rogers also achieved financial success as a rancher and used his influence to help soften the negative aspects of white acculturation on the tribe. Roach (1980) presents a sociological-psychological assessment of the relationship between Will and his father during the formative boyhood and teenage years. The father had high expectations for his son and desired 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 the mother's death, and young Will went from one venture to another with little success. Only after Will won acclaim in vaudeville did the rift begin to heal, but Clem's untimely death in 1911 prohibited the full reconciliation.[2]

Throughout his youth, Rogers was enrolled in several private schools, none of which he stayed at very long. He was more passionate about roping, which he learned at a young age under the tutelage of Uncle Dan Walker, a freed slave that his father employed. After giving up on school, he spent his early adult years working on ranches in Texas and New Mexico. He eventually returned home to find his father had moved to Claremore and became a wheat farmer. Will was unsuited for farming, and as more white settlers moved to Oklahoma at the turn of the century he realized that ranching was becoming a thing of the past. In 1901, Rogers decided to move to Argentina with a friend after hearing stories about a thriving ranching community in the country. They finally arrived in Buenos Aires in May 1902, however their stay was short lived. Rogers did not have enough money to invest in property and was handicapped because he did not speak Spanish, and decided to move to South Africa after only a few months. In South Africa, he encountered Texas Jack’s Wild West Show and after an impressive audition he was offered a job. In 1903 Rogers left Texas Jack, with a glowing recommendation, and traveled to New Zealand and Australia before returning to Oklahoma in April 1904.

Vaudeville years

Will Rogers in his cowboy attire. Photo taken around 1919.

Shortly after his arrival in the States, he sought to continue his performance career. He landed a role in the Mulhall Wild West Show at the St. Louis World's Fair and broke into the vaudeville scene with a roping performance on stage in Chicago. In 1905, he rejoined the Wild West Show in New York City where they performed at Madison Square Garden. During another entertainers performance a steer got loose and charged the audience. Rogers headed off the animal, redirecting it to the arena so it could be roped, a feat for which the "Indian Cowpuncher" received public acclaim. Rogers used his notoriety to jump start his vaudeville career, which began at the Union Square Theatre on June 12, 1905. He was booked for the supper show with minimal advertisement, however he overcame these obstacles with an act that culminated in him roping a pony on stage. He also demonstrated a knack for inserting his natural, wry humor into the show. His show became an instant success and his show moved to the biggest stages in New York. In the following years, his success continued as he performed on many of the larger stages on the east coast.

Amidst his continuing stage success and after several years of courtship, primarily through written correspondence, Rogers married Betty Blake on November 25, 1908 at Betty's home in Rogers, Arkansas.

In 1914, Rogers experienced a brief but successful tenure in the musical The Merry-Go-Round in London. With the outbreak of World War I, he returned to New York where he took a job performing at the Midnight Frolic, which was run by Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. who was the producer of America's most famous vaudeville show, the Ziegfeld Follies. Taking his wife's advice, Rogers incorporated commentary into his show about stories he read in the newspaper. This marked an important turning point in Rogers' career. Early in Rogers' career, he viewed his performances as serious and resented the laughter of audiences, but he eventually learned to embrace his homespun humor. His success led Ziegfeld to invite him to join the Follies in 1916. Rogers, now working two shows a night in the same theater, had to begin coming up with two new routines each night. He excelled in his new role and would earn national acclaim and emerged as star. He would remain working with the Follies off and on until 1924.

Movie star

Rogers rising popularity in the Follies drew the attention of Hollywood. In 1918, Rogers accepted the role of Bill Hyde in the silent film Laughing Bill Hyde, produced by Samuel Goldwyn. The movie was successful and Goldwyn offered Rogers a lucrative two year contract, tripling his Follies salary, and the family moved to Beverly Hills, California in 1919. When his contract expired in 1921, he had made twelve movies. Rogers decided to try his hand at producing his own movies, and although he made three movies, none were a financial success and he was on the verge of bankruptcy and he was forced to return to the Follies in New York.

Silent films were not the best medium for Rogers, who was unable to take full advantage of his humor. As motion pictures with sound, known as "talkies", were developed in the late 1920s, Rogers became involved with Hollywood again. His first "talkie", titled They Had to See Paris, opened in September, 1929. At the time of his death he had starred in 20 "talkies."

Public commentator

After returning to New York in 1922, Rogers found extra work making after dinner speeches at charity events and conventions. He expanded his routine from stories about current events to poking fun at those he was speaking to. Following a speech at a political rally for New York Representative Ogden Mills, in which he admitted he didn't know the candidate which made him "more apt to say something good of him than anyone else,"[3] he was offered a job writing a column for the New York Times. His first column appeared on December 24, 1922, and was syndicated one week later, becoming a standard feature in the Sunday newspapers across America for the next thirteen years.

When Rogers ended his run with Ziegfeld's Follies in 1924, he began touring the country on a lecture tour. He entertained crowds with his comedy across the United States, as well as Europe, until 1928.

Rogers was a staunch Democrat, but he also supported Republican Calvin Coolidge. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was his favorite. Although he supported Roosevelt's New Deal, he could just as easily joke about it:

Lord, the money we do spend on Government and it’s not one bit better than the government we got for one-third the money twenty years ago.[4]

Rogers served as a goodwill ambassador to Mexico, and a brief stint as mayor of Beverly Hills. During the depths of the Great Depression, angered by Washington's inability to feed the people, embarked on a cross country fund raising tour for the Red Cross.

Presidential campaign, 1928

Rogers thought all campaigning was bunk. To prove the point he mounted a mock campaign in 1928 for the presidency. His only vehicle was the pages of Life, a weekly humor magazine. Rogers ran as the "bunkless candidate" of the Anti-Bunk Party. His only campaign promise was that, if elected, he would resign. Every week, from Memorial Day through Election Day, Rogers caricatured the farcical humors of grave campaign politics. On election day he declared victory and resigned.

Asked what issues would motivate voters? Prohibition: "What's on your hip is bound to be on your mind" (July 26).

Asked if there should be presidential debates? Yes: "Joint debate--in any joint you name" (August 9).

How about appeals to the common man? Easy: "You can't make any commoner appeal than I can" (August 16).

What does the farmer need? Obvious: "He needs a punch in the jaw if he believes that either of the parties cares a damn about him after the election" (August 23).

Can voters be fooled? Darn tootin': "Of all the bunk handed out during a campaign the biggest one of all is to try and compliment the knowledge of the voter" (September 21).

What about a candidate's image? Ballyhoo: "I hope there is some sane people who will appreciate dignity and not showmanship in their choice for the presidency" (October 5).

What of ugly campaign rumors? Don't worry: "The things they whisper aren't as bad as what they say out loud" (October 12). [5]


Aviation and death

Rogers became an advocate for the aviation industry after noticing aerospace advancements in Europe and befriending Charles Lindbergh. During his 1926 European trip he witnessed the European advances in commercial air service and compared them to the almost nonexistent facilities in the United States. Rogers' newspaper columns frequently emphasized the safety record, speed, and convenience of this means of transportation, and he helped shape public opinion on the subject. Rogers died in a plane crash on August 15, 1935. The plane, piloted by fellow Oklahoman Wiley Post, went down en route to Barrow, Alaska.[6]

Philosophy and style

After Rogers gained recognition as a humorist-philosopher in vaudeville, he gained a national audience in acting and literary careers in 1915-35. In these years, Rogers increasingly expressed the views of the "common man" in America. He downplayed academic credentials, noting, "Everybody is ignorant only on different subjects."[7] Americans of all walks admired his individualism, his appreciation for democratic ideas, and his liberal philosophies on most issues. Moreover, Rogers extolled hard work and long hours of toil in order to succeed, and such expressions upheld theories of many Americans on how best to realize their own dreams of success. He symbolized the self-made man, the common man, who believed in America, in progress, in the American Dream of upward mobility, and whose humor never offended even those who were the targets of it.[8]

America in the 1920s was disenchanted and alienated from the modern world. Rogers seemed to many an anchor of stability; his conventional home life and "old fashioned" morality reminded people of an innocent past. His newspaper column, which ran from 1922 to 1935, stressed both "old" morality and the belief that political problems were not as serious as they sounded. In his films, Rogers began by playing a simple cowboy; his characters evolved to explore the meaning of innocence in film. In his last movies, Rogers explores a society fracturing into competing classes from economic pressures. Throughout his career, Will Rogers was a link to a better, more comprehensible past.[9]

In 1926, the high-circulation weekly magazine The Saturday Evening Post financed a European tour for Rogers in return for the publication of his articles. Rogers made whirlwind visits to numerous European capitals and met with both international figures and common people. His articles reflected a fear that Europeans would again go to war, and thus he recommended that the United States should assume an isolationist posture. He reasoned that for the moment American needs could best be served by concentrating on domestic questions and avoiding foreign entanglements. He commented:

America has a unique record. We never lost a war and we never won a conference in our lives. I believe that we could without any degree of egotism, single-handed lick any nation in the world. But we can’t confer with Costa Rica and come home with our shirts on.[10]

Rogers was famous for his use of language. He effectively utilized up-to-date slang and invented new words to fit his needs. He also made frequent use of puns and terms which closely linked him to the cowboy tradition, as well as speech patterns from the southern dialect.[11]

Rogers symbolized the American Democrat with his ability to move freely among all social classes, to remain above political parties, and to observe fair play. Second, he represented the American Adam with his independence and self-made man image. Third, he stood as the American Prometheus with his respect for the utilitarian and his optimistic faith in progress.[12]

Famous quotations

The average citizen knows only too well that it makes no difference to him which side wins. He realizes that the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey have come to resemble each other so closely that it is practically impossible to tell them apart; both of them make the same braying noise, and neither of them ever says anything. The only perceptible difference is that the elephant is somewhat the larger of the two.[13]
Every guy just looks in his own pocket and then votes. And the funny part of it is that it's the last year of an administration that counts. [A president] can have three bad ones and then wind up with everybody having money in the fourth, and the incumbent will win so far he needn't even stay up to hear the returns. Conditions win elections, not speeches.[14]
I bet any Sunday could be made as popular at church as Easter is, if you made 'em fashion shows too. The audience is so busy looking at each other that the preacher might as well recite Gunga Din.[15]
. Mother's Day, it's beautiful thought, but it's somebody's hurtin' conscience that thought of the idea. It was someone who had neglected their mother for years, and then they figured out: I got to do something about Momma. And knowing Momma was that easy, they figured, “we'll give her a day, and it will be all right with Momma.” Give her a day, and then in return Momma gives you the other 364. See?[16]
One sure certainty about our Memorial Days is that as fast as the ranks from one war thin out, the ranks from another take their place. Prominent men may run out of Decoration Day speeches, but the world never runs out of wars. People talk peace, but men give up their life's work to war.[17]
Thanksgiving Day! In the days of our founders, they were willing to give thanks for mighty little, for mighty little was all they expected. … Those old boys in the Fall of the year, if they could gather a few pumpkins, potatoes and some corn for the Winter, they was in a thanking mood. But if we can't gather in a new car, a new radio, a new tuxedo and some Government relief, we feel like the world is agin us.[18]

notes

  1. 1930, in Paula McSpadden Love, The Will Rogers Book, (1972) pp. 166–67
  2. Fred Roach, , Jr. "Will Rogers' Youthful Relationship with His Father, Clem Rogers: a Story of Love and Tension." Chronicles of Oklahoma 1980 58(3): 325-342. Issn: 0009-6024
  3. Ketchum, Rogers: His Life and Times, p. 179
  4. Paula McSpadden Love, The Will Rogers Book, (1972) p. 20.
  5. James E. Combs and Dan Nimmo, The Comedy of Democracy (1996) pp 60-61
  6. Fred Roach, Jr. "Vision of the Future: Will Rogers' Support of Commercial Aviation." Chronicles of Oklahoma 1979 57(3): 340-364.
  7. Paula McSpadden Love, The Will Rogers Book, (1972) p. 119.
  8. James M. Smallwood, "Will Rogers of Oklahoma: Spokesman for the 'Common Man.'" Journal of the West 1988 27(2): 45-49. Issn: 0022-5169
  9. Peter C. Rollins, "Will Rogers: Symbolic Man, Journalist, and Film Image." Journal of Popular Culture 1976 9(4): 851-877. Issn: 0022-3840
  10. Peter C. Rollins, "Will Rogers, Ambassador sans Portfolio: Letters from a Self-made Diplomat to His President." Chronicles of Oklahoma 1979 57(3): 326-339. Quote from Paula McSpadden Love, The Will Rogers Book, (1972) p. 177.
  11. Bruce Southard, "Will Rogers and the Language of the Southwest: a Centennial Perspective." Chronicles of Oklahoma 1979 57(3): 365-375.
  12. William R. Brown, "Will Rogers and His Magic Mirror." Chronicles of Oklahoma 1979 57(3): 300-325.
  13. 1928, from Gragert, He Chews to Run, p. 1
  14. Sterling and Sterling, Will Rogers' World p. 84.
  15. Sterling and Sterling, eds. Will Rogers Speaks
  16. Sterling and Sterling, eds. Will Rogers Speaks
  17. Sterling and Sterling, eds. Will Rogers Speaks
  18. Sterling and Sterling, eds. Will Rogers Speaks