WILL ROGERS, THE "CHEROKEE KID"
by Stan Griffin
"My ancestors may not have come over on the 'Mayflower' but they met 'em at the boat!" When he made that statement, Will Rogers was referring to his American Indian heritage. In fact, very early in his career he billed himself as "The Cherokee Kid," showing his pride in being part Cherokee.
This man was a force in show business and journalism during the 1920s and 1930s, the highest-paid entertainer of his day. Will Rogers starred in vaudeville, then moved to the Broadway stage. He became a movie star when films were just "getting off the ground" and had his own highly rated radio program. He also wrote syndicated newspaper columns and authored a number of books.
William Penn Adair Rogers was born on November 4, 1879 near Oolagah in Indian Territory (now the state of Oklahoma). His father was Clem Rogers who was part Irish and part Cherokee. He was tribal chieftain for a while and was greatly respected. (Rogers County, Oklahoma was named for him.)
Will Rogers was, first of all, a cowboy who of necessity used a rope. This led him into learning tricks with it. (His first teacher was an African-American, "Uncle Dan" Walker.) Eventually he did his act in front of crowds in a Wild West Show (South Africa) and in a circus (Australia, New Zealand). During his early years, he worked his way around the world several times. He eventually came to be considered one of the greatest rope artists ever, a "ropin' fool."
After a few years, Rogers progressed to the vaudeville stage where he continued to use his rope but soon added a "monologue" (a series of remarks spoken by a single performer): a dry, humorous commentary about current events and politics with a "unique blend of personal humor." Often he began with: "All I know is just what I read in the papers." Soon he dropped the rope tricks almost entirely from the act. With his jaws vigorously working a wad of chewing gum, he simply talked to his audience, With his "down-home" voice, mannerisms, dry wit, and homespun sense of humor, Rogers became a hit!
From vaudeville Rogers stepped "up the ladder" to Broadway, eventually appearing in the "Zeigfield Follies of 1915," a lavish entertainment revue. Moving to California, Will acted in a number of films (50 silent, 20 "talkies"). He was so popular that he was voted Number 1 on the "Top Ten Stars" list in 1934, ahead of such people as Mae West, Clark Gable, and Joan Crawford.
Rogers was signed by the "New York Times" to write a weekly newspaper column for them. It quickly became syndicated (sold to other newspapers); and, until his death, appeared in as many as 350 newspapers across the U. S. He wrote a number of books and traveled the "lecture circuit."
Will found the new medium of radio to his liking and soon had his own weekly show which attracted large numbers of listeners.
Rogers was a "good-will ambassador" for President Coolidge, traveling to an international conference in Europe. He said, "The U. S. never lost a war or won a conference." Some of Rogers' friends were politicians, both Republican and Democrat. Another of his well-known remarks was: "I do not belong to an organized political party, I'm a Democrat." He was considered a humorist, a social critic and was sometimes called the "cowboy philosopher."
During the years 1926-1928 Rogers toured the county making public appearances in many cities and towns. As in his vaudeville act, he used his rope along with his patented brand of conversation. Many believe that these lectures "transformed Will Rogers from a vaudeville rope-thrower to a national presence."
Will Rogers was an aviation fan for most of his life. Although he never learned to pilot a plane himself, he rode with most of the famous pilots of the nation and was a strong supporter of air travel.
In August of 1935, Rogers and Wiley Post took off on a vacation flight, headed for Alaska and then possibly Russia. Post was a well-known aviator who had made two around-the-world flights. The two stopped in Fairbanks and Barrow, Alaska and were headed for Nome when they encountered heavy fog. They tried to "wait it out" for two days, but they finally gave in; and Post took off. Apparently they became lost and landed at an Inuit (Eskimo) village to ask directions.
Told that Nome was very close, Post and Rogers again took off. Witnesses said the plane rose for a while, banked (made a turn), and then the engine failed. With no power at all, the aircraft dove straight into a lagoon. Both men were killed.
The country mourned the death of a favorite son. Memorial services were held all over the nation. Theaters in New York City closed. Movie houses across the country blacked out in his memory. CBS and NBC network radio stations observed 30 minutes of silence. Newspapers covered the story for an entire week.
Fifty thousand people walked past his casket in Claremore, Oklahoma where he was buried in the garden of the "majestic" memorial that bears his name. On his tombstone are these words spoken by Will Rogers: "I never met a man I didn't like."
It is a statue of Will Rogers which stands in Statuary Hall of the U. S. Capitol in Washington, representing the state of Oklahoma. (Each state was allowed to nominate one person to be honored.)
Will Rogers was survived by his wife Betty and three children. A son, Will Jr., became an actor. In 1952 he starred in "The Story of Will Rogers" as Will Sr. Reviews of the film included the following: " ... one of the few show biz biographies that rings true ..." and " ... Rogers Jr. ... faithfully portraying his father ..."
You might also enjoy these stories by Stan Griffin:
The People of "Din'e Be Keyah": Navajoland
Tennessee's "Christian Warrior"--Alvin
Jim Thorpe, The "Greatest"
"A Prophet Without Honor In His Own Land"--William "Billy" Mitchell