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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Will Rogers (1879-1935)

William Penn Adair Rogers was born November 4, 1879, in Oologah, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), into a prominent Oklahoma family, on the Dog Iron Ranch. Both of his parents were of Cherokee heritage. Clement Vann Rogers (1839-1911) was a politician, attorney, and judge. His mother, Mary America Schrimsher Rogers (1838-90), died when Will was 11 years old. Clement would marry within two years.

Will was the youngest of eight children. Only four of the children survived into adulthood: Sallie Clementine, Maude Ethel, May (Mary), and Will. The children all attended the Willow Hassel School in Neosho, Missouri. Will began high school at the Kemper Military Academy in Boonville, Missouri, but quit after the tenth grade. He said he was more interested in cowboys and horses. After quitting school, he went to work at the Dog Iron Ranch.

Now the story starts getting interesting: In 1901, Will went to Argentina to work as a gaucho with a buddy. Unfortunately, the two young men lost all their money trying to live. Embarrassed to send home for more money, Will headed to South Africa where he got a job getting horses prepared for the Boer War with the British Army. But the war was over. So Will joined Texas Jack's Wild West Circus as a trick roper(this was in South Africa). Texas Jack was an experienced showman and Will liked him a lot. However, Will was interested in scoping out new territory. He moved to Australia. He got a letter of reference from Texas Jack and joined the Wirth Brothers Circus which went all over Australia and New Zealand.

Returning to the United States in 1904, Will entered vaudeville. He became one of the best known entertainers throughout the country. At New York City's Madison Square Bowl, when he was trying to rope a steer, the animal broke loose and started climbing up the viewing stands. Will was able to rope the steer and pull it down. There were no other incidents. Will was written up in several newspapers and was declared a hero. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907 he helped make sure that the shows would go to Oklahoma and the folks there were some of the best audiences.

Will married Betty Blake (1879-44) in 1908. They lived in New York but spent summers in Oklahoma. Eventually, they would move to California. The couple had four children. The first was William Vann Rogers (1911-93). He was known as "Bill." After Bill finished his B.A. at Stanford University, he became the publisher of the Beverly Hills Citizen. He was elected as a Democratic congressman from California, but his political career was interrupted by military service. He enlisted as a private but was soon an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. Wounded in action while fighting in Europe, he received a Bronze Star and was honorably discharged in 1946. He remained in politics and continued as newspaper publisher until 1953. He portrayed his father in two movies under the stage name, Will Rogers, Jr. Mary Amelia Rogers (1913-89) was a Broadway actress in the 1930s. As Mary Rogers, she starred in two Broadway comedies. She became an actress completely without her father's help. Before and after leaving Broadway, she acted in about 30 small roles under the names Mary Howard, Mary Thompson, and Mary Rogers. She married three times before marrying Walter Booth Brooks, III, in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1950 at the age of 37. It was a short, rocky marriage, but she would never marry again. For the rest of her life, she was known as Mary Amelia Rogers Brooks. By many popular historians, Mary Rogers is considered the Paris Hilton of the 1930s. James Blake Rogers (1915-2000) was known as Jim. He worked with his brother Bill on the newspaper. He also acted in a few movies. In the waning years of World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. Fred Stone Rogers (1918-20) died of diphtheria at the age of two. In 1911 Will bought a ranch near Claremore, Oklahoma, for $500 an acre. This became the family's summer home.

In 1915, Will joined Zigfeld's Follies. His act was very simple: He started talking to the audience, as talking to friends. He'd be spinning a rope, a lariat, a lasso. Every once in a while, he'd do a few rope tricks. Some were great. This simple presentation became the hit of the whole show.

This launched Will into the motion picture industry. At this time in history, many of the movie studios were still in New Jersey. He got a contract with the Samuel Goldwyn Studios. His first film was Laughing Bill Hyde (1918). He remained with the Zigeld Follies until 1925.

In 1919, Will moved permanently to California. The family moved into a mansion in Pacific Palisades, a neighborhood in the city limits of Los Angeles.

Will's life was getting exciting. He was doing live shows in New York City, acting in Hollywood movies, and touring the world. He had such an easy going personality that no one could hate him.

In 1932 he added a new medium to his repertoire: radio. He was first heard on the radio version of Zigfeld's Follies. As this was performed in front of a live studio audience, he did his famous rope tricks while he was talking. The audience would often make sounds, oohs, ahhs, and so forth when the listener had no idea what was happening.

Eventually, Will had his own radio series, the Good Gulf Radio Program, which was heard on the NBC Blue Network. When it moved to CBS in 1935, it was known as the Gulf Headliners. On the Gulf show, Will didn't do the roping anymore, he just talked. Some people who hear him today consider him to be sort of a Rush Limbaugh with a heart. Actually, that's not true. Will didn't only condemn Democratic politicians. Well, that should be rephrased. He didn't condemn anyone. He only condemned their actions. Will Rogers found something wrong with all politicians. He was never arrogant or pretentious. He merely reported on what people said or what they did and asked questions. And it was entertaining.

According to Will Rogers, the greatest thing in the world was flying. He became friends with an aviator from Oklahoma named Wiley Post (1898-1935). When he was off one summer Wiley took Will with him on a flight which was going to take him around the world. Unfortunately, after experiencing some problems at Point Barrow, Alaska, the airplane (which was laden too heavily) crashed on takeoff. Wiley and Will slammed into a nearby lagoon and the men died on impact. It was August 15, 1935. Will was 55 and Wiley was 36. At the time Will died, he was the number two ranked Hollywood film star after number one Shirley Temple.

Will was buried first at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California. However, when his widow Betty died in 1944, he was exhumed and moved to the ranch in Claremore, Oklahoma, which is now the site of the Will Rogers Museum. The cemetery there includes sons Fred and Jim, as well as daughter Mary. Son Bill is buried in Tubac, Arizona.


Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy said...

Hello. I live in Neosho, Missouri and am a writer and author. I'm working on an article about a former school in Neosho, Scarritt Collegiate Institute where Will Rogers attended one semester before being expelled for chasing a calf through a tennis court. In researching the article, I've come across several mentions of a Willow Hassel School Will was said to have attended. I have done a lot of research into local history and wondered where you found this reference. I would love to pursue it.
Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy
If you respond, please use this address, not the gmail one.

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