|Will Rogers was born in Indian Territory on November 4, 1879 and, according to Richard M. Ketchum in Will Rogers: His Life and Times, his "growing up was about as close to the nostalgic ideal of a nineteenth-century boyhood as it is possible to come by" (Ketchum, 37).|
Rogers left Kemper Military School in Boonville, Missouri at the age of eighteen and relocated to a ranch in Higgins, Texas. In Texas-and later in New Mexico and California-Rogers lived a cowboy's life. He "rode seven days a week, rounding up cattle, roping and branding calves, as happy as a teen-age boy could be, with a horse and saddle and bedroll of his own, working with seasoned cowhands for $30 a month" (Ketchum, 45). Rogers eventually returned to his father's ranch in Oklahoma. In 1899, Rogers traveled to St. Louis, where he participated in a roping-and-riding contest. According to Rogers, this was "the beginning of his show business career" (Ketchum, 62). The contest's organizer, "Colonel" Zach Mulhall, offered Rogers a job with his newly formed cowboy band touring state fairs throughout the Midwest.
|Rogers returned home after the tour, but, in 1901, he was off once again-this time to
Buenos Aires, Argentina. Realizing that "Argentina was not for him," Rogers
accepted a job tending cattle on a boat sailing for South Africa. Not long after his
arrival, Rogers drove a herd of mules from Durban to Ladysmith. Luck was finally on his
side-Texas Jack's Wild West Show was in town. Rogers immediately signed on with Texas Jack
as a trick roper. "The Cherokee Kid" was an instant success--Rogers was
"the center of attraction" (Ketchum, 84). When Rogers decided to return home in
1903, Texas Jack wrote "as glowing a recommendation" as a young performer could
ask for (Ketchum, 84):
I have the very great pleasure in recommending Mr. W. P. Rogers (The Cherokee Kid) to circus proprietors. He has performed with me during my present South African tour and I consider him to be the champion trick rough rider and lasso thrower of the world. He is sober, industrious, hard working at all times and is always to be relied upon. I shall be very pleased to give him an engagement at any time should he wish to return. (Ketchum, 84)
|"Via a small detour" around the world, Rogers made his way back to Oklahoma
by the summer of 1904-just in time for the St. Louis World's Fair (Ketchum, 84). Rogers
performed both on the midway and in a Wild West show inside the fairground. A few months
later, Rogers traveled to Chicago and performed on the stage for the first time. During
one performance, a dog ran onto the stage and Rogers "tossed a loop over the horse
and hauled him in" (Ketchum, 93). Rogers subsequently entertained ideas about roping
a running horse, "something that had never been done before in theatre"
(Ketchum, 93). He had the opportunity to do just this in New York City in 1905--and he was
a huge success.
The New York Herald reviewer claimed:
Will P. Rogers, the sensational lariat thrower, is making his first appearance at the Paradise Roof, and has proved a sensation in every way....[His] charming specialty [is] well out of the ordinary run. (Ketchum, 109)
In 1913, Rogers was offered an engagement in the Midnight Frolic, a late-night show on the roof of the New Amsterdam Theatre and the property of Florenz Ziegfled, Jr., the producer of "the most famous show in America," the Ziegfeld Follies (Ketchum, 137). Rogers' engagement in the Midnight Frolic lasted for months and, in 1916, he joined the Follies--and redefined his role as entertainer:
He had come a long way from the serious, single-minded technician who made the customers marvel at his dexterity with the rope. Now he was talking with his audiences--talking across footlights , to be sure, but taking them into his confidence as if they were all together in someone's living room, conversing and laughing about the events of the day. He had progressed, too, beyond telling a stock line of jokes between rope tricks. Where audiences once had admired his roping and chuckled at his comments, now they were laughing with Will, who seemed more like an amiable friend than a performer. (Ketchum, 139)
|Rogers was quite the "cowboy entertainer." According to Arthur Frank
Wertheim in Will Rogers: At the Ziegfeld Follies:
Rogers' stage persona evoked the rustic cowboy. On his vaudeville tours Rogers billed himself under various names, including the Oklahoma Cowboy, the Great Lasso Expert, and the Lasso King. Show publicity vroutinely described the entertainer as a western plainsman and a Cherokee cowpuncher from Indian Territory. Asked once by a reporter how long he had been roping, Rogers replied: "Well, I can remember when I was two years old, of chasing and roping my mother's turkeys out on the ranch and I could catch 'em too." Through his cowboy outfit (leather chaps, flannel shirts, boots, spurs, and soft hat), stage mannerisms (grin and head scratching) and southwestern drawl, he personified the Old West on stage--a frontier of open ranges and the rugged life that had largely vanished through population growth and the coming of the railroad. (Wertheim, 5)
In Will Rogers: A Biography, Ben Yagoda stresses the importance of Rogers' background:
It was essential...that he not completely transform himself into a Broadway song-and-dance man, for, no less than his ability, a key to Will's success was his cowboy persona. A vogue in realms eastern for things western had been brewing for some years, contributed to by such diverse factors as the Wild West shows and frontier melodramas of Bill Cody, (the original) Texas Jack and their imitators, dime novels featuring the likes of Deadeye Dick, and the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, whose famed frontier thesis, first put forth in 1893, celebrated the western wilderness for the personality traits...it engendered. (Yagoda, 96)
|Not long after Rogers was asked to join the Follies, he was introduced to the world of
motion pictures. Rogers became "a new star to filmdom" in 1918 when he starred
in the film version of Rex Beach's novel, Laughing Bill Hyde (Yagoda, 162). The
movie's success prompted Goldwyn Pictures to offer Rogers a contract. Thus, at the close
of the Follies of 1918 tour, Rogers and his family moved to Los Angeles.
In two years, Rogers made twelve films for Goldwyn Pictures: Almost a Husband; Jubilo; Water, Water Everywhere; The Strange Border; Jes' Call Me Jim; Cupid the Cowpuncher; Honest Hutch; Guile of Women; Boys Will Be Boys; An Unwilling Hero; Doubling for Romeo; and A Poor Relation. In each of these films Rogers plays "a country fellow...who, following plot developments of greater or lesser improbability, achieves newfound confidence and potency, gets the girl, and usually comes into some money to boot" (Yagoda, 166). Although Rogers did not bring his cowboy persona to each of these movies, he did have the opportunity do so in a few of his productions. For example, he played "a cowboy...eager to marry off his friends" in Cupid, the Cowpuncher and "a bashful cowboy in love with a heroine" in Doubling for Romeo (Ketchum, 169).
|Rogers' motion picture career continued on into the 1920s. Until his death in 1935,
Rogers made movies for Fox Film Corporation, as well as his independent company, Will
Rogers Productions Rogers also appeared in the Follies until 1925, when he began a
nationwide lecture tour. In fact, in the 1920s and 1930s, Rogers was everywhere:
Newspaper columns, books, motion pictures, radio appearances, recordings, Bull Durham advertisements--in what seemed every way imaginable, the image, voice, and words of Will Rogers were being disseminated all over the country. (Yagoda, 216)
During the 1920s, the cowboy as an American icon underwent an important transformation. In the first decade of the century, Americans understood the cowboy to be a rustic Westerner--a working cowboy. But, in the 1920s, the cowboy was brought East and introduced to the popular culture of the nation. He moved from the ranch to the stage, becoming an entertainer first and a cowboy second. Although a cowboy at heart, Will Rogers clearly made this shift to "cowboy entertainer." In "The Cowboy Hero: An American Myth Examined," Lonn Taylor clarifies this transformation and, at the same time, summarizes Will Rogers' contributions to his country:
No one has ever been able to equal the position that Will Rogers held in American hearts---he was our first national "personality." He struck chords that predated the cowboy and went all the way back to Brother Jonathan, Artemus Ward, and the wise rube who outsmarts the city slicker. At the same time, he was an authentic cowboy, raised on a ranch in the Cherokee Nation, and a master of the lasso. His own experiences recapitulated the history of the cowboy hero: he had been a horse wrangler, a working cowboy, a Wild West performer (in South Africa), and a movie star. Unlike Theodore Roosevelt, he had access to the radio and to motion pictures, and he took advantage of both. He also wrote a syndicated political column and several books of political commentary. In those heady times, he provided just the right anchor to the American past....Will Rogers represents a transition between the world of the real cowboy and the world of the make-believe cowboy, and he is a pivotal figure in the growth of the cowboy myth. (Taylor, 78)
Ketchum, Richard M. Will Rogers: His Life and Times. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1973.
Taylor, Lynn and Maar, Ingrid. The American Cowboy. New York: Harper and Row, 1983.
Wertheim, Arthur Frank. Will Rogers at the Ziegfeld Follies. University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
Yagoda, Ben. Will Rogers: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
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