Remembering the Charismatic ‘Cowboy Philosopher’ Comedian Who Won America’s Heart

From Wild West shows to vaudeville to motion pictures, Will Rogers was known and loved throughout 1920s and 1930s America.

There is not a single word that can describe the famous American folk hero Will Rogers. Born on a ranch in Indian Territory in 1879, he became a cowboy, ranch hand, rodeo rider, vaudeville entertainer, movie star, columnist, author, public speaker, comedian , a radio personality and social commentator. It was an early 20th century sensation. Oklahoma’s favorite son has become adored by the nation.

Rogers’ jokes, quotes and gems of wisdom live on today in the 21st century. “I’ve never met a man I didn’t love.” “Well, all I know is what I read in the papers.” “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” “Don’t let yesterday use up too much of today.” “Worrying is like paying a debt that may never come due.” “What the country needs are dirtier fingernails and cleaner minds.”

An autographed photo of Will Rogers from 1912. (Public domain)

Early life

The American cowboy philosopher was practically born in the saddle with a rope in his hand. William Penn Adair Rogers was the eighth child of Clement “Clem” Vann Rogers and Mary America (Schrimsher) Rogers, born in the Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory, which became Oklahoma after the 46th state was admitted to the Union in 1907. He was born on a ranch 2 miles east of Oologah; however, he claimed nearby Claremore as his birthplace “because no one but an Indian can pronounce Oologah”, Rogers said. “My dad was an eighth Indian Cherokee and my mom was a quarter blood Cherokee. I’ve never gotten far enough in arithmetic to understand how ‘Injun’ it made me, but there’s no nothing I’m more proud of than my Cherokee blood.

His father, Clem, became one of the wealthiest ranchers in Indian Territory, and Rogers began riding horses at a young age with ranch hands and one of his older brothers. A pillow was hidden behind the horn of the saddle to hold it in place. Before the age of 7, when he was sent to the Cherokee Nation school called Drumgoole, Rogers was educated with a cowboy from the Dog Iron Ranch who had a reputation as the best roper in the district. Rogers was fascinated by the lariat and learned the art of spinning curls with precision and style. It’s a skill that eventually landed him gigs with the Wild West shows and launched his career in entertainment.

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Scene from “Doubling for Romeo”, a 1921 American silent comedy co-written by and starring Will Rogers. (Public domain)

dark cloud

Oologah is a Cherokee word meaning “dark cloud”, which may have foreshadowed Rogers’ loss of his mother to typhoid fever as a young boy, casting a shadow over the next few years of his life. “My own mother died when I was 10. My parents told me what little humor I have comes from her, Rogers told a radio audience in 1930. “I don’t remember her humor, but I remember her love and his understanding of me.

He was extremely close to his warm and loving mother and extremely distant with his father, who has been described by biographers as tough, callous and stern. In addition to the loss of his mother, three of Rogers’ older sisters who had helped care for him married, and his father spent long periods traveling on business. Although there are other families on the ranch with children, it has been described as lonely and gloomy. Rogers did not apply to the many schools he was sent to over the next seven years and was eventually sent to a military school, from where he ran away to work on a cattle ranch in Texas. . After a short time, he began drifting all over the southwest and took trains illegally as a tramp, commonly referred to as a wanderer. Rogers even went overseas to Argentina and then to South Africa, where his career in show business began with Texas Jack’s Wild West Circus.

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A still from the 1923 comedy short ‘Uncensored Films’. (Public domain)

Cherokee Child

“I was hired to rope in the ring,” he said in a letter to his father, “but the man who rides the throwing horse is fired and I’ve been riding the throwing horse ever since. that I’m with the show. It also has a lot of parts showing Western life. … I do all the stringing and they call me the ‘Cherokee Kid – The Man Who Can Lasso the Tail of a Flesh Fly’ in the program. I learned to do quite a few fancy strings. Rogers considered the nine months he spent with Texas Jack as one of the most important periods of his life. In another letter to his father, Rogers described Texas Jack as “a much finer shot than Buffalo Bill”.

After two years working in Wild West shows in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, Rogers has finally returned home. His father wanted his wayward son to finally go into business, but Rogers learned that Colonel Zack Mulhall was hosting a show about the Wild West at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, and he left. His disappointed father told friends that any boy who wasted his time in Wild West circuses could never be worth anything. However, his show business mentor, Texas Jack, suggested to Rogers that his unique string act could succeed on the vaudeville stage.

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A 1920 portrait of Will Rogers. (Public domain)

Fame and Faith

His charm and humor and his authentic portrayal of an average person is what won the audience’s approval. “I’m just an old country boy in a big city trying to get along,” he once wrote. “I eat quite regularly and the reason for that is that I’ve remained an old country boy.” From vaudeville, he moved on to the Ziegfeld Follies, then silent films, then “talkies”, where he eventually starred in over 70 feature films and shorts. In 1934, Rogers was voted Hollywood’s most popular actor. He wrote a popular column in a syndicated newspaper, “Will Rogers Says”, which millions of Americans read. He has also written books, magazine articles and been featured on radio. Rogers found success with every media avenue available. He has been described as the voice of an average citizen.

“I suspect Will’s modesty stems from an immense respect for his father and a knowledge that, at least in early adulthood, he was a disappointment to his family,” wrote his wife, Betty (Blake ) Rogers in a biography of her. last husband.

His son, Will Rogers Jr., recalled his father setting a spiritual example and teaching moral lessons through example rather than lecture. Prayer was a reality with them. In a July 1957 article for Guideposts magazine, Rogers Jr. recounted the time his father was ill. His mother, Betty, reminded the children of a time when all the children in the house had diphtheria and “your father was on his knees and praying for all of you. Now, get down on your knees and pray for him.

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The charismatic performer is famous for his straightforward humor and down-to-earth philosophies. (Public domain)

Although Rogers’ mother wants him to become a Methodist minister, the famous cowboy said he “slipped off and became an actor” and was grateful she never found out. During their short period of closeness, the two men had often sung Methodist hymns together. Rogers’ father, the successful and authoritative businessman that he was, often pointed out that there was not much money to be made as a minister. Rogers was never a regular member of the church as an adult, but he insisted that his children attend Sunday school every week. When the family lived in Beverly Hills, California, Rogers participated and helped raise funds to build a community church.

As for his own faith, Rogers once wrote: “I was brought up predominantly Methodist, but I have traveled so much, been around so many people in all parts of the world, that I still don’t know what I am. I know I’ve never been an unbeliever. He became tolerant of all religious traditions and religions.

Rogers died on August 15, 1935, at the age of 55, in a plane crash at Point Barrow, Alaska with famed Oklahoma aviator Wiley Post. Headlines screamed as the world stopped in shock. “Traffic came to a standstill, cinemas went dark, shopkeepers were locked in, housewives wept on their steps. Congress stopped in shock. The world wept,” author Joy Schaleben-Lewis wrote in a 1990 article for the Chicago Tribune.

“What constitutes a life well spent, anyway?” Rogers once asked his readers. “Love and admiration of your neighbor is all one can ask for.” It was reported that more than 100,000 mourners walked by his coffin during an ecumenical funeral service.

This article originally appeared in American Essence magazine.

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