Who Is Will Rogers?

Will Rogers, an Oklahoma cowboy, was beloved by the public for helping the poor during the Depression.

The most popular man in America during the 1920's and early 1930's was undoubtedly Will Rogers. The glib mouthed cowboy and trick rope performer was a spokesman and supporter of the common man and his monologues made them laugh as well as think.

Born on a ranch near Oologah, Oklahoma in 1879, Will was part Cherokee on both his mother's and father's side. His mother died when he was 10. His father was left to raise Will and his two sisters alone. A tough man, Clem Rogers was proud of his Cherokee heritage and instilled that pride in his children. He was a very successful and wealthy rancher, and was always very involved in politics. Clem Rogers had very strong feelings on what his children need to accomplish with their lives.

Will was, according to his father and his father's standards, wild and irresponsible. He had learned roping as a child and became quite an expert with a lasso, constantly practicing more and more difficult tricks. He was also quite an adept wrangler and cowboy.

He left home over conflicts with his father before he was 20. He enjoyed travel, using his cowboy skills and rope twirling to earn a living as he traveled around the country. At the turn of the century, he returned to Oologah, at his father's request, to show support for turning the Oklahoma Territory into the 40th State. While he was there, he met a pretty girl named Betty Blake, whom he was eventually to marry. But once again, he and his father disagreed over the way Will wanted to live his life, and once again Will left Oologah to travel, less than a year after arriving.

He was gone for two years, keeping in touch with Betty Blake by post cards as he traveled all over the United States, South America and other far off places, practicing his skills as a cowboy. Eventually he signed up with a Wild West Show where he became enormously popular because of the complexities of his trick roping and riding - he could rope six horses and riders at one time as well as perform many other complicated tricks. The show traveled all over the world and Will with it.

He returned home and asked Betty to marry him. She quickly agreed. Their honeymoon to Niagara Falls (as well as eventually many other places) was financed by his stint as "The Cherokee Kid" in another Wild West Show, where he performed his rope tricks, usually while doing some extraordinary riding on his horse. Will and Betty were on the road for several years.

The last performance of this Wild Wild West Show was held at Madison Square Gardens in New York City and the couple decided to stay in New York for a while after being offered a 6 week contract at a generous price for Will to perform at a Vaudevillian theater . Unfortunately, the enormous popularity of trick roping and horse back riding of The Cherokee Kid at a Wild West Show did not extend to the bawdier vaudeville stage. Will went several months without working. Betty was pregnant and soon to give birth and money was running out.

In desperation, Will accepted a last minute replacement job at a vaudeville theater in Brooklyn. He arrived just as he was supposed to go onstage, without his horse - which was delayed in traffic. He decided quickly to drop the name "The Cherokee Kid" and used his real name. Will Rogers was very nervous on that appearance - his wife was in labor, his horse, an integral part of his act, was not there. He flubbed a rope trick and just incidentally started chatting with the audience in his normal, folksy, witty manner. He was a huge success. The audience was delighted with his homespun comments on politics and politicians and almost anything else he had read in the paper.

He became enormously popular on the vaudeville circuit and worked for years for the famous Flo Ziegfield. He never knew what he was going to say and only prepared for his monologues by reading the paper and observing life around him.

By now, he and Betty were the parents of three children and they decided to move to California, where he bought a large, non-working ranch. He began making silent movies, using his roping and riding skills, and became extremely popular in that medium also.

During this time, he met a young pilot named Wiley Post, whose job was to fly the film canisters from the location of the shooting to the studio for processing. They were both from the West and both part Cherokee. Both shared a love of airplanes, adventure and travel and they became lifelong friends. Wiley very often flew Will wherever his travels demanded. Wiley Post also was one of aviation's first test pilots. In 1931, he became famous in his own right as he flew around the world in eight days, 15 hours, and 51 minutes, breaking the previous record of 21 days.

Will's travels and popularity were worldwide. He met presidents and kings and dictators and royalty of every kind. He met rickshaw drivers and farmers and workers from every walk of life. Probably his most long-lived quote is "I never met a man I didn't like."

When the taking movies began, Will Rogers became one of the most popular movie stars in that medium, perhaps the biggest star of the 1920's. He and Betty and their children thrived.

The stockmarket crash of 1929 ignited further Will Rogers' humanitarian instincts. He watched his old time friends from Oklahoma lose their homes and livelihood and determined that he would somehow help them. He traveled tirelessly, organizing benefits and raising money to help those affected by the depression. He talked personally to Henry Ford and John Rockerfeller and convinced them both to contribute matching funds. He and Wiley Post traveled 151 days and nights, making speeches and raising money. He was the hero of the common man, who adored and loved him. He made them laugh with his political comments but at the same time he made them think.

His jokes and ribbing were so good natured, even the politicians thought highly of him.

His comments and humor were further displayed when he began writing a newspaper column, "Says Will Rogers," where his pithy comments and political observations were quoted and requoted. He once said that all he did was watch Congress and report the facts. One of his favorite Congress quotes was: "Every time they make a joke, it's a law and every time they make a law, it's a joke."

In 1935, Will and Wiley decided to fly to Alaska. It was a place where Will had always wanted to visit and he found the perfect excuse since there was a political appropriation needed for Alaskan defense at the time. It was the last trip that he and Wiley ever took. The airplane crashed and both men were killed.

Will Rogers left a lasting legacy with his movies, his writings and the stories that live on after him. All over Oklahoma and other parts of the nation there are still memorials to Will Rogers - parks and schools and buildings named for the man who made American laugh during its darkest days and who was always beloved for his caring and humanitarian ways.

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