PERFORMERS: WILL ROGERS

Born: November 4 1879
Died: August 15 1935

by PETER TATCHELL (copyright 2011)

He became the conscience of a nation, a Broadway comedian and sometime movie actor who deflated the pomposity of the rich and powerful by expressing the common sense point of view of everyday people.

Will Rogers was a multi-media personality long before the word had even been invented … from sideshows and circuses he conquered vaudeville, the Broadway stage, the movies (both silent and sound), newspapers and radio. But for all his down to earth attitudes in a turbulent era that encompassed world war, prohibition, depression and the rapid advancements of technology, he was a humorist and comedian at heart.

Will was born in 1879 at his father’s ranch in what was then known as Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). At 18 he was working as a cowboy inTexasbefore returning home to manage the family ranch. But his prowess in the saddle and performing rope tricks soon enticed him into the world of show business.

Like his Follies compatriot W.C. Fields, the early years of the twentieth century found him travelling the world to England, South America andSouth Africa, billed as The Cherokee Kid in a Wild West show. He returned home viaAustralia andNew Zealand where he toured with a circus.

After several years in vaudeville, Rogers’ specialty act debuted on the Broadway stage in 1912 in Wall Street Girl (a short run at the Cohan Theatre with Blanche Ring and Charles Winninger). Then, after more vaudeville and another trip to England for a show called Merry-Go-Round, Will was back three years later for Hands Up and Town Topics. Stardom came when he appeared in Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic and was quickly added to the cast of the 1916 edition of The Ziegfeld Follies.

By now Will Rogers was much more than a novelty act doing rope tricks. It was his comments about “what he read in the papers” during his performance that were entrancing theatregoers. He was such a hit that Ziegfeld signed him for his Follies of 1917 and 1918 as well.

Despite the producer’s ban on his artists appearing in the increasingly popular “flickers”, Rogers’ physical skills were soon being demonstrated for the cameras across the river in New Jersey. With a starring role in Laughing Bill Hyde, a lengthy career in the movies was born.

A two-year contract from the Goldwyn Studios enticed him toHollywoodand the publishing firm of Harpers signed “the Cowboy Philosopher” for collections of his witticisms. Will also made his first appearance on the infant medium of radio in 1922 and began writing a syndicated weekly column (which would run for the rest of his life).

Famed proprietor of the “Lot of Fun”, Hal Roach, starred Will in a series of two-reelers a year later before Rogers headed back to the bright lights of Broadway to headline the 1924 and 1925 editions of The Ziegfeld Follies.

Then it was off on a lecture tour across the country, starring in The Cochran Revue in London and a British movie Tip Toes before filming a dozen light-hearted travel shorts around Europe. Not to mention more syndicated newspaper articles, now required on a daily basis.

Life was busy, but it wasn’t all rosy. In 1927 Will needed urgent gall stone surgery and the experience became the basis for a book called Ether and Me or Just Relax.

A year later he filled in for his friend Fred Stone back on Broadway in the musical comedy Three Cheers and, as fate would have it, it was the last time Will Rogers headlined on the gay white way.

By the late 1920s the coming of talkies was revolutionizing the movie industry and the Fox Studios signed Will for his first sound feature They Had to See Paris.

Hollywood had been home to the Rogers family for the past decade and when he signed for a series of radio broadcasts in 1930 (despite most shows at the time emanating from New York) it was arranged that a network of telephone cables would carry Will’s comments to listeners across the country. (Transcripts of the weekly talks soon appeared in book form).

Into the 1930s Will divided his time between his increasingly popular film work for Fox, his ever-present newspaper columns and more regular broadcasts. He was also lured back on the stage with a starring role in a revival of Ah Wilderness inSan Francisco andLos Angeles in 1934.

Having travelled the globe several times and embraced the various new forms of entertainment technology,Rogers was a longtime devotee of aviation. He’d made his first flight inNew Jersey in 1915 and a dozen years later became the first civilian to cross the country in a mail plane.

When his friend Wiley Post was planning a round the world flight in mid-1935, Will insisted he accompany him. Having completed his current contract for Fox with In Old Kentucky and Steamboat Round the Bend, the pair headed north for the first stage of the journey. But on August 15, near Point Barrow inAlaska, the plane crashed and Rogers and Post were killed.

The nation went into mourning, stunned that the comedian they each felt was their friend was gone.

Films

SILENT

Laughing Bill Hyde (1918)
Almost A Husband (1919)
Pinto (1919)
Jubilo (1919),
Water, Water Everywhere (1919)
The Strange Boarder (1920)
Jes’ Call Me Jim (1920)
Cupid, The Cowpuncher (1920)
Honest Hutch (1920)
Guile Of Women (1920)
Boys Will Be Boys (1921)
An Unwilling Hero (1921)
Doubling For Romeo (1921)
A Poor Relation (1921)
One Glorious Day (1922)
The Headless Horseman (1922)
One Day in 365 (1922 unreleased short)

The Ropin’ Fool (1922 short)
Fruits Of Faith (1922 short)
Hustling Hank (1923 short)
Two Wagons, Both Covered (1923  short)
Jus’ Passin’ Through (1923 short)
Hollywood (1923)
Uncensored Movies (1923 short)
The Cake Eater (1924 short)
The Cowboy Sheik (1924 short)
Big Moments From Little Pictures (1924 short)
High Brow Stuff (1924 short)
Going To Congress (1924 short)
Don’t Park There (1924 short)
Jubilo, Jr. (1924 short)
Our Congressman (1924 short)
A Truthful Liar (1924 short)
Gee Whiz, Genevieve (1924 short)
Tip Toes (1927)
A Texas Steer (1927)
With Will Rogers In Dublin (1927 short)
With Will Rogers In Paris (1927 short)
Hiking Through Holland With Will Rogers (1927 short)
Roaming The Emerald Isle With Will Rogers (1927 short)
Through Switzerland And Bavaria With Will Rogers (1927 short)
With Will Rogers In London (1927 short)
Hunting For Germans In Berlin With Will Rogers (1927 short)
Prowling Around France With Will Rogers (1927 short)
Winging ‘Round Europe With Will Rogers (1927 short)
Exploring England With Will Rogers (1927 short)
Reeling Down The Rhine With Will Rogers (1927 short)
Over The Bounding Blue With Will Rogers (1927 short)

SOUND

They Had To See Paris (1929)
Happy Days (1929)
So This Is London (1930)
Lightnin’ (1930)
A Connecticut Yankee (1931)
Young As You Feel (1931)
Ambassador Bill (1931)
Business And Pleasure (1931)
Down To Earth (1932)
Too Busy To Work (1932)
State Fair (1933)
Doctor Bull (1933)
Mr. Skitch (1933)
David Harum (1934)
Handy Andy (1934)
Judge Priest (1934)
The County Chairman (1935)
Life Begins At Forty (1935)
Doubting Thomas (1935)
Steamboat Round The Bend (1935)
In Old Kentucky (1935)

 

DVDs

The Will Rogers Collection – volume 1
20th Century/Fox 4DVD set (2006)
includes
Doubting Thomas
Life Begins at 40
In Old Kentucky
Steamboat Round the Bend

Judge Priest
IVL DVD DVDIV 066 (2003)

 

Radio 

THE WILL ROGERS SHOW
sponsor: E.R. Squibb and Son
CBS Sundays 10:00pm April 6 to June 29 1930 (13 editions)
no known recordings (but transcripts were published in book form)

THE GULF SHOW
sponsor: Gulf Gasoline

series 1: NBC Blue Sundays 9:00pm (30 editions)
April 30 to June 11, July 16, August 13, October 29 to November 26 1933,
January 7 to March 4, June 10 to July 8, September 16 and 30 1934.
with The Revelers, Al Goodman’s Orchestra

series 2: CBS Sundays (24 editions)
9:30pm October 7 to November 11, December 23 and 30 1934
7:30pm January 6 to February 3, March 31,
8:30pm April 7 to June 9 1935
with Frank Parker and Oscar Bradley’s Orchestra (until March 31),
Helen Gleason and Frank Tours Orchestra (from April 7)
April 30 1933, July 8 1934, March 31 to  June 9 1935 are with collectors

Recordings 

A New Slant On War / Timely Topics
Victor 78rpm 4537 (February 6 1923)

Will Rogers Nominates Henry Ford For President / Will Rogers Tells Traffic Chiefs How To Direct Traffic
Victor 78rpm 45369 (May 31/June 2 1923)

Will Rogers Talks To The Bankers / Will Rogers’ First Political Speech
Victor 78rpm 45374 (May 31 1923)

* at the February 6 session, Will also recorded two other tracks that weren’t released:
The United States Senate and the Government
Prohibition

Will Rogers Says
Columbia LP ML 4604
On Paying Taxes
On Fishing from Astor’s Yacht
On Inheritance Taxes
On Farm Plan and Sharing Wealth
On Comedians
On Flo Ziegfeld
On the Giant Lottery
On Gold
On Government Spending
On the Pilgrims and Indians
On Buried
On Making Movies in Sacramento
On Mothers’ Day
On Return After Seven Weeks Abroad
On the Baer/Carnera Fight
On Everybody Being Worried
On Who Shall Play Santa Claus
On Rogers’ Commission to Russia
On Living in Russia
On State Legislatures
On Everybody Having a Plan
On Taxes, Movies and Greta Garbo

The Voice Of Will Rogers
American Heritage LP P 11794
Timely Topics (February 6 1923)
Address to Traffic Chiefs
(June 2 1923)
Unemployment Speech
(October 18 1931)
Democratic Convention
(1932)
President’s Day
(April 30 1933)
”Badwill” Tour
(July 8 1934)
Treaties
(March 31 1935)
Government Spending
(April 7 1935)
Pilgrims and Pioneers
(April 14 1935)
Inheritance Taxes
(April 28 1935)
Mothers’ Day
(May 12 1935)
Congressional Record
(May 12 1935)
Supreme Court
(June 2 1935)
Last Broadcast
(June 9 1935)

The Wit And Wisdom Of Will Rogers
Caedmon 2LP TC-2046
April 7 1935: Roosevelt and Taxes
April 14 1935: Rogers Plan (phase 1)/The Pilgrim Fathers/The Great Dust Storms of History/Conservation
April 21 1935: Special Security Plan/The Townsend Plan/Rogers Plan (phase 2)/The Agricultural Plan/Other Plans/Big Business Plan
April 28 1935: Rogers Plan (phase 3)/The Inheritance Tax/The Morgenthau Plan/Franklin D. Roosevelt
May 5 1935: Chain Letters/Lotteries/Rogers Plan (phase 4)
May 12 1935: Mothers’ Day/Rogers Plan (phase 5)/Congressional Record

Will Rogers
Distinguished LP DR-3001
The Dust Bowl  (April 14 1935)
President’s Day 
(April 30 1935)
Economics 
(April 7 1935)
The Pilgrims 
(April 14 1935)
Mothers’ Day 
(May 12 1935)
Plan Day 
(April 21 1935)
Inheritance Tax
(April 28 1935)
The Congressional Record 
(May 12 1935)

Original Radio Broadcasts
Mark 56 LP 659
includes two GULF SHOW broadcasts:
April 28 1935
April 21 1935

Will Rogers 1879 – 1935
Murray Hill 3LP set
Wild and Woolly West/Travel Travel Little Star (with Fred Stone) (August 13 1933)
National Address on Young Plan and Unemployment (October 18 1931)
Speech at the National Democratic Convention
(1932)
Radio Comedians/Badwill Tour of the World
(July 8 1934)
An Address to Traffic Chiefs
(June 2 1923)
A New Slant on War/Timely Topics
(February 8 1923)
Hitler Breaks Versailles Treaty/Hoover Address to the Nation/Mussolini Meddles in Africa
(March 31 1935)
The Effect of Dust Storms on Great Civilizations
(April 14 1935)
Broadcast From Sacramento
(May 19 1935)
Rogers Plan to End All Plans
(April 21 1935)
Gambling and Lotteries in U.S. History
(May 5 1935)
The Dionne Quints/The Bonus Bill/Inflation and Deflation/Retroactive Taxes
(May 26 1935)
Garbo Leaves Hollywood/A Visit from a Member of Roosevelt’s Cabinet
(June 2 1935)
N.R.A. Declared Unconstitutional by Unanimous Supreme Court Decision
(June 2 1936)
The Last Will Rogers Broadcast
(June 9 1935)

Will Rogers – Comments from his Radio Shows of the Thirties
Golden Age LP GA 5034
Will Sings “Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day” (1933)
Plans
(April 28 1935)
Congress and Law
(May 12 1935)
Taxes
(April 7 1935)
President’s Day
(April 30 1933)
All About Pilgrims
(April 14 1935)
Mothers’ Day
(May 12 1935)

Will Rogers
Legacy CD 449
All I Know is What I Read in the Papers + Taxes
President’s Day
All About Pilgrims
Mother’s Day
Old Crooners (Will sings Where the Blue of the Night)
Plans
Congress and Law

 

Books

ROGERS-ISMS – THE COWBOY PHILOSOPHER ON THE PEACE CONFERENCE
by Will Rogers (Harper, 1919)

ROGERS-ISMS – THE COWBOY PHILOSOPHER ON PROHIBITION
by Will Rogers (Harper, 1919)

THE ILLITERATE DIGEST
by Will Rogers (A. and C. Boni, 1924)

LETTERS OF A SELF-MADE DIPLOMAT TO HIS PRESIDENT
by Will Rogers (A. and C. Boni, 1926)

THERE’S NOT A BATHING SUIT IN RUSSIA AND OTHER BARE FACTS
by Will Rogers (A. and C. Boni, 1927)

ETHER AND ME – OR JUST RELAX
by Will Rogers (Putnam, 1929)

TWELVE RADIO TALKS DELIVERED BY WILL ROGERS
by Will Rogers (E.R. Squibb, 1930)

WILL ROGERS WIT AND WISDOM
compiled by Jack Lait (Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1936)

WILL ROGERS – A MEMORIAL ANECDOTAGE
(Putnam, 1936)

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF WILL ROGERS
edited by Donald Day (Hearst, 1949)

WILL ROGERS ON HOW WE ELECT OUR PRESIDENTS
compiled by Donald Day (Little, Brown and Co., 1952)

WILL ROGERS – WISE AND WITTY SAYINGS OF A GREAT AMERICAN HUMORIST
selected by Art Wortman (Hallmark, 1969)

THE BEST OF WILL ROGERS
edited by Bryan B. Sterling (Crown, 1979)

A WILL ROGERS TREASURY
edited by Bryan B. Sterling and Frances N. Sterling (Crown, 1982)

 

THE STORY OF WILL ROGERS
by Jerome Beatty (Saalfield Publishing, 1935)

WILL ROGERS – AMBASSADOR OF GOOD WILL, PRINCE OF WIT AND WISDOM
by P.J. O’Brien (John C. Winston Company, 1935)

OUR WILL ROGERS
by Jack Lait (Greenberg, 1935)

AN APPRECIATION OF WILL ROGERS
by David Randolph Milsten (Naylor Company, 1935)

I LOVED HIM TOO
by Cyr Veter (Book Rancho, 1936)

THE LIFE OF WILL ROGERS
by Harold Keith (Thomas Crowell, 1937)

MY COUSIN WILL ROGERS
by Spi Trent (Putnam, 1938)

WILL ROGERS – HIS WIFE’S STORY
by Betty Rogers (Bobbs-Merrill, 1941)

WILL ROGERS – IMMORTAL COWBOY
by Shannon Garst (Julian Messner, 1950)

OUR WILL ROGERS
by Homer Croy (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1953)

WILL ROGERS – A BIOGRAPHY
by Donald Day (David McKay, 1962)

PEOPLE OF DESTINY – WILL ROGERS
by Kenneth G. Richards (Children’s Press, 1968)

IMAGEMAKER – WILL ROGERS AND THE AMERICAN DREAM
by William R. Brown (Columbia/University of Missouri Press, 1970)

WILL ROGERS – THE MAN AND HIS TIMES
by Richard M. Ketchum (Simon & Schuster, 1973)

WILL ROGERS
by Paul E. Alworth (Twayne Press, 1974)

THE WILL ROGERS SCRAPBOOK
by Bryan B. Sterling (Bonanza Books, 1976)

WILL ROGERS IN HOLLYWOOD
by Bryan B. Sterling and Frances N. Sterling (Crown Publishers, 1984)

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