|James Whitmore with the coveted "Will Rogers Communicator Award."|
By Joseph H. Carter
Award-winning actor James Whitmore sauntered many times onto the stage in Washington, D.C., where President Lincoln's assassin leaped after shooting the president.
With dignity traced to his Yale University education, Whitmore tells the Will Rogers story with studied terseness then transforms himself in the persona of the Oklahoma cowboy humorist.
Without mentioning the tragic history of Ford's Theatre, Whitmore's one-man show, Will Rogers' U.S.A., flashes stage into a snapshot of the times when Will Rogers' humor bolstered America's sagging spirit and taught gentle lessons to Congress.
Whitmore, between other acting engagements, performed his one-man show eight times between 1970 and 2000 on the Ford's Theatre stage. He delivered Will Rogers in dozens of other venues, always with academic correctness heavy with history but lightened with laughter.
James Whitmore's one-man portrayal of Will Rogers links the two talents across the decades and into many hearts and minds.
As Nelson Pressley wrote in the Washington Post of February 18, 2000:
"Twirling a lariat and stamping his feet delightedly at his own jokes, Whitmore makes the business of playing one of America's great humorists look like the most enjoyable thing a person can do here in Washington."
Charles Rogers presents the
award to actor James Whitmore who played Will Rogers for 30 years in the one-man show, Will Rogers' U. S. A. The final 12-show performance occurred in February 2000 at Ford's Theatre in Washington. Charles Rogers, a horseman of Phoenix, is a grandson of Will Rogers.
Whitmore's final performances at Ford's Theatre during February was marked by heavy attendance. Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma was host in 2000 while the late Speaker Carl Albert was initial host in 1970.
Opening night of the final 12-performance run was marked by the presentation of the "Will Rogers Communicator Award" to Whitmore by Charles Rogers (Will Rogers' grandson of Arizona); television legend Jim Hartz (chairman of the Will Rogers Memorial Commission of Oklahoma) and Michelle Lefebvre-Carter (director of the Will Rogers museum and ranch of Claremore and Oologah, Oklahoma).
Television news team interviews on the sidewalk of Ford's Theatre in Washington where the Will Rogers Communicator Award was presented to actor James Whitmore. Shown are Michelle Lefebvre-Carter, director of Oklahoma's Will Rogers museum and birthplace ranch; television's Jim Hartz, chair of the Will Rogers Memorial Commission; and Charles Rogers, grandson of Will Rogers
"From 1970 through 2000, three generations of Americans were again awed and inspired by the legendary Will Rogers through his masterful stage presenter, James Whitmore," the award read.
The award called Whitmore "the premier and unsurpassed portrayer of Will Rogers."
Whitmore gave "integrity in content; vividness in portrayal; honesty in delivery, and essential intellect in keeping alive the virtues, humor, vital lessons and warm spirit of Will Rogers."
The recognition previously was given to President Reagan, Will Rogers Follies producer Max Weitzenhofer; author-biographers Frances and Bryan Sterling; Chicago Tribune writer Brian Downes; poster collector Gordon Kuntz of Minneapolis; and the president of Twentieth Century-Fox movie studio who re-released some of Will Rogers' motion pictures of the 1920s and 1930s.
Will Rogers, 1879-1935, was a wild west show performer, vaudevillian, Ziegfeld Follies Broadway player, syndicated newspaper columnist, author of six books, radio commentator and star of seventy-one movies.
He died in an Alaskan plane crash along with Wiley Post, a fellow Oklahoman who circumnavigated the world twice in a single-engine plywood airplane named Winnie Mae.
This writer was present both at the 1970 opening of James Whitmore's Will Rogers' U. S. A. and the final run in 2000, along with viewing other performances, including a legendary show in 1985 at Fairbanks, Alaska, on the fiftieth anniversary of the fatal crash.
Whitmore, Mrs. Carter and I stood on the hillside south of Point Barrow where Post and Rogers died. Eskimos had stacked rocks as a tall marker in remembrance.
Standing there with Whitmore was an emotion-pitched experience that matched the greatest events of my life.
In writing my Avon book, Never Met A Man I Didn't Like: The Life and Writings of Will Rogers, I tried to capture the crash scene. The challenge remains beyond my craftsmanship of writing.
Whitmore on the stage, performing, funnily and correctly just below the balcony where Lincoln was shot, also stretches the reality of history: tragedy and beauty of enormous scope.
Will Rogers ranks just behind Jesus as my hero. Whitmore and Lincoln are not far behind. They are testaments of greatness. They stretch and sketch the potentials of all time into the Twenty-first Century's unfolding mysteries. All of them fit among the finest.
America has much to learn by reading Will Rogers. Watching James Whitmore play the one-man show was the easy way to absorb the material. A short cut through theater in its finest form.
With the lobby of Ford's Theatre in the background, shown are Michelle Lefebvre-Carter, director of Oklahoma's Will Rogers Museum, and Charles Rogers, grandson of Will Rogers.
Luckily, across the nation today, there are ten other fine actors who play Will Rogers based on research largely from the rich archives and the fine nine-gallery Will Rogers museum at Claremore and the living history birthplace ranch at nearby Claremore.
Most of the actors have stood by the tomb of Will Rogers in Claremore.
But, more important, they have absorbed his humor and recite his philosophy. Will Rogers as a role model remains viable and unmistakable in its worth. Actors and authors join in keeping Will Rogers before the hungry public.
The drama of such opportunity, for thirty years, was eloquently and finally recited by James Whitmore. It will be missed. But, the Will Rogers legacy lives and guides far into the future.