BeginningsWill Rogers was born in Indian Territory in what would later become the state of Oklahoma. His father was Clement Vann Rogers (1839-1911) and his mother was Mary America Schrimsher, both of whom had Cherokee heritage. He used to quip that, "My ancestors didn't come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat."
The teenage and young-adult Rogers loved the cowboy ways, yet had not settled into any definite career path. In March 1902, he traveled to England in a round-about way of securing passage for Argentina, where from May 1902 he spent five months seeking a career with the gauchos of the Argentine pampas. Later in 1902, the still-restless Rogers sailed for South Africa, where he took a job breaking in horses for the British Army. While in South Africa, he began his show business career as a trick roper in Texas Jack's Wild West Circus, billed as The Cherokee Kid.
Vaudeville and The FolliesReturning to the U.S. by continuing to perform as a 'Wild West' show performer and trick roper with the Wirth Brothers Circus, Rogers began to try his roping skills on the American Vaudeville circuits.
Although he began by doing only roping tricks (including roping live horses with 2 or more ropes on stage), his wry comments after missing a trick also found favor with audiences. He began working more jokes into his act, yet still concentrated on his top-notch roping abilities.
The key event in Rogers' stage career was his securing a one-week engagement in New York, in the fall of 1915, for showman Florenz Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic. This variety revue, beginning at midnight in the top-floor night club of Ziegfeld's New Amsterdam Theatre, drew many influential--and regular--customers. This meant that Rogers could not simply repeat his act each night, as he had done for years of 'one-nighters' in different cities. He made use of his appetite for reading the news of the day, by working up comic commentary on news and newsmakers.
The one-week spot ran on into 1916, and Rogers' obvious popularity resulted in an offer to be one of the comic acts on the more-famous Ziegfeld Follies. Ziegfeld saw comedians as mere 'stage-fillers' who entertained the audience while the stage was reset for the next spectacle of beautiful girls in stunning costumes. Rogers managed to not only hold his own, but to achieve star status, with both his roping and his precise satire on the daily news. He did this while competing with fellow Follies acts such as W. C. Fields, Bert Williams, and Fanny Brice. Rogers would eventually appear in most of the Follies from 1916 to 1925.
TravelsFrom 1925 to 1928, Rogers traveled the length and breadth of the United States in a lecture tour. (He would begin his lectures by pointing out that A humorist entertains, and a lecturer annoys!) During this time he became the first civilian to fly from coast to coast with pilots flying the mail in early air mail flights. The National Press Club of Washington, DC, dubbed him Ambassador at Large of the United States; and, in 1927, he visited Mexico City with the transatlantic aviation pioneer Charles A. Lindbergh as a guest of Ambassador Dwight Morrow. In subsequent years, Rogers gave numerous after-dinner speeches; became a popular convention speaker; gave benefits for victims of floods, droughts, or earthquakes. After the Great Depression hit the United States, Rogers gave radio talks on unemployment with ex-President Calvin Coolidge, President of the United States Herbert Hoover, and former Presidential candidate Al Smith.
Middle careerThrough Rogers' continuing series of columns between 1922 and 1935, as well as in his personal appearances and radio broadcasts, he won the loving admiration of the American people, poking jibes in witty ways at the issues of the day and prominent people – often politicians. He wrote from a non-partisan point of view and became a friend of presidents and a confidant of the great. Loved for his cool mind and warm heart, he was often considered the successor to such greats as Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) and Artemus Ward.
He made a trip to the Orient in 1931 and to Central and South America the following year. In 1934, he made a globe-girdling tour and returned to play the lead in Eugene O'Neill's stage play, Ah, Wilderness! He had tentatively agreed to go on loan from Fox to MGM to star in the 1935 movie version of the play; however, his concern over a fan's reaction to the 'facts-of-life' talk between his character and its son caused him to decline the role – and that freed his schedule to allow him to fly with Wiley Post that summer. He often touted the advantages of flying.
From 1930 to 1935, he made radio broadcasts for the Gulf Oil Company. Since he could easily ramble from one subject to another, reacting to his studio audience, he would lose track of the half-hour time limit in his earliest broadcasts, and was cut off in mid-sentence. To correct this, he brought in a wind-up alarm clock, and its on-air buzzing would alert him to begin wrapping up his comments. By 1935, his show was being announced as Will Rogers and his famous Alarm Clock!
The Movies, East Coast and HollywoodHis starring position in the Ziegfeld Follies resulted in an offer to star in the silent feature films of Samuel Goldwyn's company. He made his first one, Laughing Bill Hyde, in 1918. It was filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey, since many early films were made near the major New York performing market; Rogers could make the film, yet still remain ready to rehearse and perform in the Follies.
Rogers moved permanently to the West Coast in 1919, when the Goldwyn company moved to join the rise of film-making in California. He made 12 silent movies for Goldwyn until his contract ended in 1921. At this time, he was also making the Illiterate Digest film-strip series for Gaumont.
Inspired by the concept of the United Artists (the independent films of Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith), Rogers tried his hand at making his own films, nearly bankrupting himself before returning to the Ziegfeld Follies to pay off his debts.
While Rogers enjoyed adding film acting to his entertainment experience, his time in silent movies suffered from the obvious restrictions of silence--not the strongest media for him, having gained his fame as a commentator on stage. It helped somewhat that he wrote a good many of the 'title cards' appearing in his films.
In 1923, he began a one-year stint for Hal Roach, making twelve pictures for the up-and-coming movie comedy mogul. After twelve pictures, he ended the contract in 1924. He made two other feature silents and a travelogue series in 1927, and did not return to the screen until his time in the 'talkies' began in 1929.
From 1929 to 1935, Rogers became the star of the Fox Film lot (now 20th Century Fox). Far from being a B-Movie level performer, Rogers appeared in 21 feature films alongside the likes of Lew Ayres, Billie Burke, Jane Darwell, Andy Devine, Stepin Fetchit, Janet Gaynor, Boris Karloff, Myrna Loy, Joel McCrea, Hattie McDaniel, Ray Milland, Maureen O'Sullivan, ZaSu Pitts, Dick Powell, Bill Bojangles Robinson, Mickey Rooney, and Peggy Wood. He was directed three times by John Ford.
With his voice becoming increasingly familiar to audiences, he was able to basically play himself, without normal makeup, in each film, managing to 'ad-lib' and even work in his familiar commentaries on politics at times. The clean moral tone of his films led to an activity nearly unimaginable today: various public schools taking their classes, during the school day, to attend special showings of some of them.
His most unusual role may have been in the first talking version of Mark Twain's novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. His popularity soared to new heights with films including Young As You Feel, Judge Priest, and Life Begins at 40 with Richard Cromwell, and Rochelle Hudson.
WritingAt the same time, he also began writing a popular syndicated short item called Will Rogers Says. Literally a telegram which he composed daily to address each day's news, it often appeared on the front pages of its subscribing papers.
In it, he expressed his disappointment with big government and the effect it had on the nation, particularly during the Depression era. His wit was often caustic: as he explained, "There's no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you." Nevertheless, he identified with the Democratic Party, saying "I don't belong to any organized party. I'm a Democrat," and was a vocal supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. At one point, he was even asked to run for governor of Oklahoma, the party hoping to benefit from his immense popularity.
Marriage and childrenRogers married Betty Blake (1879-1944) in 1908, and they had four children: William Vann Rogers (1911-1993); Mary Amelia Rogers (1913-1989), who married Walter Brooks II; James Blake Rogers (1915-2000), who married Margeurite Astre Kemmler (1917-1987), and after her death married Judith Braun; and Fred Stone Rogers (1918-1920), who died of diphtheria as an infant.
DeathAn avid booster of aviation, Rogers undertook a loosely-planned 'round-the world' flight with a fellow Oklahoman, world-renowed aviator Wiley Post, in the summer of 1935. Post's plane, an experimental and top-heavy craft built from various airplane parts, crashed near Point Barrow, Alaska, on 15 August 1935, killing both men.
In 1944 his body was moved from a holding vault in California to the grounds of the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma. The Memorial is built on the site of land overlooking Claremore, which Rogers owned with the idea of living on it in retirement. Later in 1944, Mrs. Rogers was interred beside him.
On November 4th, 1948, the United States Post Office commemorated Rogers with a first day cover of a 3-cent stamp with his image--the inscription reads, "In honor of Will Rogers, Humorist, Claremore, Oklahoma." He was also later honored on the centennial of his birth, in 1979, with the issue of a United States Postal Service 15c stamp as part of the Performing Arts series.
LegacyIt may be difficult for people today to comprehend the place Rogers held in the U.S.A. at the time of his death. He was its most widely read newspaper columnist, between his daily Will Rogers Says telegrams and his weekly column; his Sunday night half-hour radio show was the nation's most-listened-to weekly broadcast; and, he had been the nation's Number-Two movie 'Box Office Draw' in 1933 (behind Marie Dressler) and Number-One in 1934, ranking 2nd at the time of his death for 1935 only to Shirley Temple.
Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, was named after him, as was the U.S. Navy submarine the USS Will Rogers. Rogers' home, stables, and polo fields are preserved today for public enjoyment at Will Rogers State Park in Pacific Palisades, CA. Rogers' birthplace is open to the public and is located two miles east of Oologah, Oklahoma, on land overlooking his original ranch now covered by the reservoir Lake Oologah.
A Statue on the campus of Texas Tech University was erected of Will Rogers on a horse, with its rear end facing Texas A&M, a football rival.
At Epcot, an Audio-Animatronic Will Rogers is seen twirling his lasso and speaking in The American Adventure's 1930s sequence.
In Colorado Springs, Colorado, the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun was erected by Spencer Penrose in 1937. It is an 80-foot observation tower built near Cheyenne Mountain and includes a photographic exhibition of Rogers' life.
Rogers had the unique posthumous honor of having his eldest son, Will Jr., star as him in the 1948 'biopic' The Will Rogers Story. Rogers also came to life for modern audiences in the Tony Award winning musical, the Will Rogers Follies, and he was also portrayed on the stage by James Whitmore in the one-man show Will Rogers U.S.A.
For his contribution to the entertainment industry in motion pictures and radio, Will Rogers was awarded two stars on the legendary Hollywood Walk of Fame at the following locations: 6401 Hollywood Blvd. (motion pictures) and 6608 Hollywood Blvd. (radio)
Will Rogers Facts
|Birth Name||William Penn Adair Rogers|
|Birthday||November 4, 1879|
|Birthplace||Oologah, Indian Territory, Oklahoma, USA|
|Date of death||August 15, 1935 (Alaska, USA, age 55)|
|Height||5' 11" (1m80) How tall is Will Rogers compared to you?|