Will Rogers used to say, “My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat.”
Will was proud, button-poppin’ proud, of his Indian heritage.
His father, Clement Vann Rogers, was a Cherokee senator and judge who helped to write the Oklahoma Constitution.
Mary America Schrimsher Rogers, Will’s mother, descended from a Cherokee chief, easily mastered modern society, music, literature, etiquette and good humor.
Trained by a freed slave to rope and ride, Will became a hard-riding Indian-cowboy. He rode the range and joined the long, dusty cattle drives from Texas to the Kansas rail heads.
His physical prowess in precisely and expertly flipping heavy rope coils demonstrated his training, fitness and strength. And it was with that same deft touch with a lasso that he created a top vaudeville and cinema persona, “The Cherokee Kid.”
Wild West shows paved the way for Will Rogers trick roping to the vaudeville stage where he added talks, jokes, and gentle humor that soon made his famous.
Bashful at first, Will Rogers' early jokes were apologies when his rope failed to spin. The audience roared and backstage pals encouraged the banter. Jokes became better than ropes. Will Rogers criss-crossed America and invaded European theaters, chortling frontier humor and sharing native insight with punctuation from his swinging lariat, as vaudeville boomed.
For a decade Will Rogers was the toast of the Ziegfeld's Follies, while rare beauties of the era reigned on Broadway. Broadway and cinema gained a star whose talent was honed and grew on the rough boards of Vaudeville.
Will Rogers took the rope tricks he learned as a boy and honed on the range into the wild west shows and onto the vaudeville stage, where he added talks, jokes and gentle humor that soon made him famous.
Bashful at first, Will first offered jokes as apologies when his rope failed to spin. The audience roared and backstage pals encouraged the banter. Soon, his gags became more popular than his ropes.
In the early days of the twentieth century, as vaudeville boomed, Will crisscrossed America and invaded European theaters, serving up generous portions of frontier humor and sharing native insight with punctuation from his swinging lariat.
“Swinging a rope isn’t bad,” he would say, “as long as your neck isn’t in it.”
Will signed with showman Florenz Ziegfeld in 1915. By 1918, Will Rogers was a certified Broadway star, earning $1,000 a week in the famous Ziegfeld Follies.
“All I know is what I read in the papers,” became one of Will Rogers’ trademark quips. And Will used the newspapers to reach millions of Americans.
His witty and profound observations in his regular newspaper columns made Will Rogers a leading journalist of the early twentieth century.
The question often has been posed: Are only the Bible and Shakespeare quoted more often than Will Rogers?
The answer, it would seem, could only come from the affirmative side.
Writing more than 2 million words, equal to 20 novels, Will’s syndicated weekly and daily columns were prized by 600 newspapers and reached a potential audience of 40 million readers. His written words spread wisdom and reflections that remain timely into the twenty-first century.
Always a talker and a fabled raconteur, Will Rogers was a natural for radio.
His warm and entertaining voice needed only amplification, and radio provided just that.
In a time when World War I and the Great Depression dominated the national scene, Will Rogers’ down-home charm and incredible insight explained the phenomena and exposed the foibles. Good event or bad, Will delivered a timely message, jestful appraisal or jocular warning.
Will first appeared on the radio in Pittsburgh in 1922 on station KDKA when the medium was in its infancy. That broadcast signal was picked up only by crystal sets and earphones, the forerunners of radios with loudspeakers.
Will Rogers continued to appear on radio through the 1920s and made his first regularly scheduled broadcasts in the spring of 1930 for the pharmaceutical firm E. R. Squibb & Sons. His weekly Sunday evening show, The Gulf Headliners, ranked by 1935 among the top fifteen radio programs in the country.
In concert with ideas he was conveying in newspaper columns, movies and magazine articles, Will’s radio addresses were the principal opinion molders during the first half of the 1930s.
Around the campfires of yesteryear, cowboys spun yarns and shared laughs. Will Rogers perfected this storytelling art form and carried it to the stages of the world, delivering down-home humor into the heart of humanity and history of the world.
Without rancor or design, Will debunked the mighty and reined in the foibles of government and follies of mankind. Humor was his tool.
His insight became the hallmark of his time and permeated generations that came later. Clear and concise, pointed but not barbed, Will Rogers made sense.
Without staff writers or editors, Will’s spontaneous, folksy wit was published, performed on stage, recorded on phonograph, broadcast on radio and captured in cinema.
No media escaped Will Rogers’ masterful performances.
Beyond the wild west shows and the stage, Will became a pioneer in early silent pictures, starring in fifty.
He produced, directed and starred in the memorable Ropin’ Fool, the 1922 film that captured his skills as a roper, writer and slow-motion cinema innovator.
Sound was added to celluloid in 1929 and introduced Will’s voice to a new media for Fox Film Corporation, later to be known as Twentieth Century-Fox.
In just five years, Will starred in twenty-one acclaimed motion pictures, winning top box office honors in 1934 and becoming Hollywood’s highest-paid actor.
Will worked for top studios, from Goldwyn to Fox, and legendary directors, from Hal Roach to John Ford. In rarefied salute to his stature and reputation, the name Will Rogers always was listed above the title of the movie.
In his later life, when Jim Rogers was asked to reflect upon his father, Will Rogers, he said, “We grew up with two men: WR and Dad.”
WR, of course, was the man in the limelight, the hardworking, consummate performer and communicator.
Dad was the gentle, beloved father of Will, Jr., Mary, Jim, and Fred, who died as an infant.
“My parents were ideal,” Jim Rogers said. “One of the truest things Dad ever said was, ‘The day I roped Betty was the greatest performance of my life.’ And that’s true. If it had not been for Betty Blake from Rogers, Arkansas, there never would have been the Will Rogers much of the world knew and loved.”
At age twenty-nine, Will’s marriage to Betty was a renewal of the foundation that had launched him. A growing career became a booming success with the warmth and wisdom of a loving, advising and inspiring wife.