By Ashley Kath-Bilsky
Why? Who was this man? Why was he so beloved by so many people?
For those who may not know much (if anything) about Will Rogers, this post may help to bring the magnitude of his life to light.
William Penn Adair Rogers was born 04 November 1879 at his parents’ ranch in Oologah, Oklahoma (then Indian Territory). Raised on a working cattle ranch, he learned how to ride and work a lasso with great skill. One such skill, throwing three lassos at the same time (one around the horse’s neck, one circling the rider, and the third looping all four legs of the horse together) found him added to the Guiness Book of World Records.
Determined to become a cowboy and put his excellent roping tricks to use, he traveled to South America in 1902-1903 as ‘The Cherokee Kid’ with Texas Jack’s Wild West Show. [Note: Both of his parents had some Cherokee ancestry.] He later traveled to New Zealand and Australia as a member of the Wirth Brothers Circus .
Upon his return to the United States in 1904, Will performed at the World’s Fair in both St. Louis and New York City. From 1905 to 1915, Will worked the vaudeville circuit and toured America, Canada, and Europe. During this time period, he also married the love of his life, Betty Blake. Together they would have four children: Will Rogers, Jr., Mary Amelia Rogers, James Blake Rogers, and Fred Stone Rogers.
An avid reader who enjoyed talking with people from all walks of life, Will incorporated insightful and quite humorous comments about life, people, the country, and politics into his act. With his unpretentious personality, easygoing manner, and simple way of talking, Will endeared himself to audiences wherever he went.
Soon, Hollywood came calling.
In 1918, Will appeared in silent films, two of which were Laughing Bill Hyde (1918) and The Ropin' Fool (1921).
So, what was it about Will Rogers that made him so popular?
Timing played a big part. From 1929 until 1939, the country was experiencing the Great Depression.
By 1933, between 13 million and 15 million people were unemployed. Half of the banks in the United States had failed. Although relief and economic reform measures were being implemented, the economy did not improve until 1939.
Those experiencing despair, poverty, frustration, and loss were able to laugh. And the intelligent yet tinged with humor insight Will had on the country's situation and politics shined a light on what many were thinking. Suddenly Will Rogers was not just a cowboy from vaudeville, or a popular actor, he was someone like them. He understood them.
The country could not get enough of Will Rogers. His perspective, insight, and humor about life (and what was happening in the country) made him the equivalent of what we would call a superstar today. The Cherokee Kid soon found himself not only working in films, but in great demand on the radio with a weekly show. In addition, he wrote 4,000 syndicated columns and six books.
People were not only reading or listening to what he had to say, they were remembering quotes.
“Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people that they don’t like.” ~ Will Rogers
“If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die, I want to go where they went.” ~ Will Rogers
“Half our life is spent trying to find something to do with the time we have rushed through life trying to save.” ~ Will Rogers
“If you ever injected truth into politics, you have no politics.” ~ Will Rogers
“I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report facts.” ~ Will Rogers
“We can’t all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.” ~ Will Rogers
“I never met a man that I didn’t like.” ~ Will Rogers
Sadly, on 15 August 1935, Will Rogers was killed in a plane crash near Point Barrow, Alaska. The 53-year old Cowboy, Humorist, Columnist, Actor, and Radio Personality had accompanied his friend, aviator Wiley Post on his private plane to Alaska.
Needless to say, the nation mourned the death of Will Rogers.
Although initially buried at the famous cemetery in Los Angeles, Betty Rogers built a memorial to her husband in Claremore, Oklahoma. The site was dedicated in 1938 by President Franklin Roosevelt. The body of Will Rogers, along with his son, Fred (who died at the age of two), were moved to the Claremore memorial in 1944. Betty Rogers also died that year, and is buried beside her husband and son.
As for all those memorials to Will Rogers, don't be surprised if you see one (or more) in your travels. They include an elementary school in Santa Monica, another in Ventura, California. California also has a park in Beverly Hills, a State Beach in Pacific Palisades, and the Will Rogers Highway (aka a section of Route 66 through Santa Monica).
Colorado has the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun, an 80-foot tall observation tower at the base of Pike's Peak in Colorado Springs.
In Fort Worth, Texas, there is the Will Rogers Memorial Center situated on 120 acres in the Arts District. Built in 1936, the complex includes an auditorium, rodeo arena, exhibit halls, as well as a 2,500 horse stalls and 2,250 cattle pens.
The former home of Will Rogers in Pacific Palisades was bequeathed to the State of California by Betty Rogers, to be used as a public park. The property includes the Rogers home, a polo field, and stables. In her bequest of the property, Betty Rogers requested that polo must be played on the field every year. The Will Rogers Polo Club is still open to the public.
It should come as no surprise that Oklahoma has created many memorials to their native son. Among them is the Will Rogers World Airport located in Oklahoma City. Thirteen public schools also bear his name.
The life of Will Rogers exemplified the impact one life can have on another. How we can heal wounds with laughter, or make people feel they are not alone or forgotten. Without question he was a gifted performer, one who used his talent, his perspective, and his voice to touch thousands of people who were perhaps feeling lonely or overwhelmed by their daily lives and the challenges the country was facing.
In addition, if you would like more information about Will Rogers, the Will Rogers Memorial Museum and Burial Site is located in Claremore, Oklahoma.
Thank you so much for stopping by today. I hope you enjoyed this insight into the man behind the name, Will Rogers. There are so many other wonderful photos I simply could not put in this post. So, I made a fun video featuring the song Willamania from the Broadway musical The Will Rogers Follies. I hope you will watch it and smile. ~ AKB
The Will Rogers Memorial Center, Fort Worth, Texas
The Will Rogers Memorial Museum, Claremore, Oklahoma
The Papers of Will Rogers - Volume One, November 1879 to April 1934, Edited by Arthur Frank Wertheim and Barbara Bair, University of Oklahoma Press - 1996