Stars of Vaudeville #73: Will Rogers
Originally posted in 2009.
Will Rogers’ place in the hearts and minds of Americans transcended the limits of mere show business. He was regarded as a kind of American Saint, a sort of cross between Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln and George Bernard Shaw. A “cowboy philosopher” who expressed harsh and amusing truths in a bluntly honest way reminiscent of the blurted pronouncements of children and old folks – funny because shocking because true. Co-star Peggy Wood called him a “puncturer of self-made balloons”. Rogers became larger than life, a sort of symbol of the common man. His fame and relevance only grew until the day he died, and when he did, at the age of 55, it was a national day of mourning.
He was born on this day in 1879, in what was then known as Indian Territory (later Oklahoma). His full name at birth was Colonel William Penn Adair Rogers, after an admired military leader. Rogers was roughly 1/6 Cherokee Indian. (father 1/8, mother ¼). He was fond of saying “My folks didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat.” Thus we are able to include him in our series of posts this month related to Native American Heritage Month:
Contrary to his image, it is a shock to learn that Rogers grew up a spoiled rich kid. His father was a well-to-do rancher (60,000 acres) and politician. In the Indian Territory days he was a member of the Cherokee Senate; he was also a delegate to the convention that drafted the Oklahoma Constitution. Perhaps the only hint of Will’s earlier life of privilege that he retained was an unapologetic fondness for polo in his later years.
The youngest of 7 children, Rogers was the baby of the family, and got away with plenty of mischief.. His mother died when he was 10, leaving his upbringing even more unsupervised. Like many vaudevillians, Rogers didn’t finish school, but not out of need or neglect in his case. He was wild and undisciplined and was thrown out of many schools, most of them private boarding schools. Even so, he was quite close to graduating when he finally quit for good. As a kid, he spent all of his time doing rodeo tricks and it got him into plenty of trouble. He would rope girls with a lasso for kicks. He once broke the arm off a statue by roping it; on another occasion he roped and injured the teacher’s horse. He was addicted to all sorts of practical jokes. Also, as later became well known, his grammar and spelling were atrocious, which might have been charming in a syndicated column, but surely can’t have sat well with his teachers. Rogers ran away from military school at age 18 to go on a cattle drive. During those months, he lived the life of a real cowboy, living outdoors on the range, sleeping on the ground at night, eating meals around a campfire.
In 1901, he competed in riding and roping contests in a rodeo show run by Colonel Zach Mulhall. Realizing he’d never be tops in the rodeo world, in1902 he departed for Argentina to work on ranches. Dissatisfied with that experience, he next worked a cattle boat en route to South Africa. While in that country, he happened to meet a traveling vaudevillian named W.C. Fields in (where else) a bar. Shortly thereafter, Rogers finally became a performer for good. He joined Texas Jack’s Wild West Show as a rider and roper, working there for 9 months. as “the Cherokee Kid”. From there, he went on to work at the Wirth Bros. circus in Australia, and wended his way home by way of San Francisco in 1904. Almost immediately, he rejoined Col. Mulhall for a rodeo exhibition at the St. Louis fair.
In 1905, Mulhall brought a “small picked bunch” with him for a performance at Madison Square Garden. When the engagement closed, Rogers stayed behind in New York to break into vaudeville. He had trouble getting managers to book him at first but finally debuted at Keith’s Union Square during the 6-8 slot, the so-called “dinner” show. Not many people were there, of course (they were all eating dinner!). Rogers went on 5th in the bill and was a hit anyway. In no time, he was booked at Hammerstein’s Roof.
His early act was almost entirely an exhibition of skills. He’d make a spectacular entrance on Teddy, his horse, jump off and send him into the wings with a slap on the hindquarters. He began his sequence of tricks to the accompaniment of the orchestra playing familiar cowboy songs. He had an assistant named Buck McGee who rode a horse around stage that Rogers would rope in various ways. Felt was attached to the horse’s hooves so he wouldn’t slip on the stage. One of Rogers’ tricks was to toss two lassos at the same time, one over the rider and one over the horse’s hooves. Other tricks included the Texas Skip (where he jumped in and out of a vertical loop), and the merry-go-round, where he passed the spinning rope from hand to hand, under his legs, and behind his back. His show-stopper was the “crinoline”, in which Rogers played a lasso out so far it went way out over the audiences heads. Like a golfer with his various clubs, Rogers had a whole array of different sized (length, width, thickness) ropes to accomplish his different tricks. Most of these tricks can be seen in the 1922 film The Ropin’ Fool.
Contrary to popular belief, Rogers had some patter in his act from the very beginning, in the form of little remarks to cover his flubs. Despite the fact that he was the premier lariat artist of his time, such failures are common even to masters. How to deal with them is the mark of a true performer. “I don’t have any idea I’ll get it, but here goes”, is reported to have been his first line on stage. Initially he was flummoxed, not to say angry, that people laughed when he spoke. To an audience of New Yorkers, Will’s folksy turn of expression and his Western accent were alien things, just as nutty in their way as Fanny Brice’s Yiddishisms. When he perceived that this was to his advantage, Rogers relaxed some and played it for all it was worth. He began to cook up lines, especially for the act. Many remarks taken for ad libs are in fact worked out in advance. “I’m handicapped up h’yar, the manager won’t let me swear when I miss, ” always got howls. He’d written it out earlier on a piece of hotel stationary.
Gum chewing was another early trademark. In that era of propriety and “elocution” public gum chewing was considered rude. Rogers was so natural and unapologetic about it, he helped make it socially acceptable. He even worked business with the gum into the act. If he missed a trick, he might pause a minute, then go upstage and stick the gum on the scenery then go back and try the trick again, as though the gum had hindered him somehow.
Rogers began to extend the reach of his jokes to cover other performers or the condition of the theatre itself. A favorite lark was to rope a stagehand and drag him onstage. The gesture strikes on as analogous to his verbal humor – it was an impish way of saying, “Come on, buster, you’re no better than the rest of us, I’m gonna see that you remember that.” The act was a true novelty at first; no one was doing this sort of thing in vaudeville, though after he became successful he had many imitators. In those days most comedians self-consciously crafted personae for themselves over a number of years. Weber and Fields didn’t speak in Dutch malapropisms and hit each other over the head at home. Rogers (like most modern comedians ) was “himself”. Of course, unlike many modern comedians, his actual identity was intrinsically interesting. Rogers was immediately in great demand all over the country. When he arrived at a town he would help publicize his performance by riding down the main street on a horse with a sign reading “Will Rogers, the Lariat King”. From 1906-7 he toured the major European capitals. He was much adored wherever he went, except Germany, where he was nearly arrested for roping a fire warden who happened to be standing backstage during his show. The humorless audience nearly lynched him and he fled the country. In the age of Kaiser Welhelm, Germans didn’t like the idea of being “cut down to size.” In 1910, Rogers developed a new, more streamlined act, discarding the expensive horse roping equipment and entourage, and concentrating a bit more on the humorous monologue. Some rope tricks were retained however. In some ways the new act was more “vaudevillian”. Rogers would swing his lasso while riding a unicycle, climbing a stepladder, or rolling a cigarette. He even sang something called “The Hound Dog Song”.
“I wish there was a vaudeville like there was in those old days,” Rogers once said, “No branch of entertainment was ever so satisfying to work in.” Still, you’ve got to grow in some direction. In 1912, he was cast in the musical The Wall Street Girl which also starred Nora Bayes. It was his unfortunate duty on opening night to have to announce the sinking of the Titanic to the audience. Following this acted a sort of master of ceremonies in a Shubert revue The Town Topics, which was lavish that it collapsed after just a few weeks. In the summer of 1915, Will accidentally dove into a shallow pool, damaging his right arm and side. The incident forced him to learn many of his tricks with his left hand, and to develop his humorous patter even more, thus strengthening his act still further. That year he debuted on the very first night of the very first season of Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolics. Because the same audience returned to this show every night, Rogers needed a constant influx of new material. His wife Betty suggested that he go to the newspapers for topical events. Rogers began scanning the paper every day for what he called “fresh laid jokes”. This act, usually prefaced by the familiar remark, “All I know is what I read in the papers,” was immensely successful. In 1916, he moved down to the Follies, the more prestigious Ziegfeld show, in addition to his nightly turn in the Frolics. With three shows to do a day, Rogers relied on three separate editions of the newspaper a day for fresh material. (The modern equivalent would be to constantly monitor the internet or a cable news network). Ziegfeld and Rogers were strange bedfellows indeed. Ziegfeld, the humorless, but sophisticated urban womanizer vs. the very married, apparently incorruptible, almost child-like Rogers. The two never had a contract, but made their agreement on a handshake, and neither of them ever let the other down. In 1916, Rogers had the terrifying honor of performing for Woodrow Wilson, perhaps the first time in history a standing president was publicly kidded by a comedian in person. Wilson took it all with good humor, and the tradition has never gone out of fashion to this day.
In 1918, he began to star in movies, and he would do so right through the silent era and well into the era of talkies. His first roles were straight dramatic parts for Samuel Goldwyn, but by the mid-twenties he was into more appropriate territory with Hal Roach comedies. Still, these were slapstick, and Rogers was never a pie-in-the-face sort of comedian. He was primarily verbal. Starting in 1929, he did 20 talkies for 20th-Century Fox. These films were huge hits, proving you had to HEAR Rogers. In 1931, he was of the nation’s top ten box office attractions. The following year he was second in the land, and in 1934, he came in first. To give some perspective on what time has wrought, the Marx Bros. and W.C. Fields were far less popular cinematic draws at that time. Notable films from the thirties included the original version of State Fair, Dr. Bull, Judge Priest and Steamboat Round the Bend. He was the master of ceremonies at the 1933 Oscar award ceremony. Based on the success of his self-penned monologues, he began writing for publication. His first book The Cowboy Philosopher at the Peace Conference came out in 1919. For various newspapers he covered every political convention starting in 1920. His much cherished humor column began was published 1922-35. Critics began to compare him to Twain and Ade. The writing was ungrammatical and misspelled (and unlike those other humorists it was unintentional) but it was nonetheless wise and witty. In 1925, he toured on the lecture platform, commanding high fees for engagements that lasted 1-2 hours in towns all over the country. He even played Carnegie Hall, the first time a comedian had done so.
His radio career spanned 1926-35. In 1933 he started The Good Gulf Show featuring “the famous alarm clock”. Rogers would set the clock, and when it rang, wherever he was, he would stop talking. The fifteen minute show consisted of unedited live topical extemporization. Rogers was most effective during the depression, when his warm, reassuring voice in the home had the same effect as Roosevelt’s. It made people feel better. During the 20s he had been popular because he was an oddity—a sort of throwback to the Wild West days. During the depression he was popular because he symbolized the common man and he told the unvarnished truth about what was going on. His work was akin to that of Carl Sandburg, John Steinbeck and other chroniclers of the era. FDR loved him, and Rogers loved FDR right back.
Rogers’ restless love of travel, and his boundless trust in his fellow man combined to cut his life short at the age of 55. A huge fan of aviation, which was still technically in its infancy, he jumped at the chance to fly with Wiley Post to map a postal route from Alaska to Siberia. Not to put too fine a point on it, Rogers was such a trusting man, he flew in a home-made plane with a one-eyed guy to a place without any airports. The 1935 plane crash hit the nation hard. Not since Lincoln’s assassination had the whole country mourned a single man so intensely. By the end of life, Rogers had outgrown show business entirely. He was simply a great man.
His legacy lives on. In 1940, Will Rogers, Jr. was elected to congress. James Whitmore played Rogers in many one man shows beginning in 1969. In 1991, Keith Carradine starred in The Will Rogers Follies on Broadway.
To learn more about vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc