Will Rogers Started Poor, Died Rich, and Left Behind a Lot of Laughter
Will Rogers was born to Cherokee parents in 1879 in Indian Territory, a rural backwater where Indian tribes had been sent to die, yet this Paint Clan Cherokee became internationally famous, and was even a potent force in U.S. politics thanks to his enormous popularity as an entertainer, from tent shows to vaudeville to radio to movies. His unlikely story is still an inspiration to modern Indians, who remain mostly rural people with limited access to all those things thought to be necessary for a rise to national prominence.
Rogers’s origins were humble more in the sense of obscurity than of poverty. The Cherokee Nation, before the Dawes Act, had managed to rebound from the worst economic effects—if not the memories—of the Trail of Tears and the Civil War. Clem Rogers, Will’s father, had been a prosperous rancher before the Civil War destroyed the Cherokee economy, but by the time Will was a preteen learning the cowboy trade, the Rogers family’s ranch had rebounded enough to be moving between 2,000 and 4,000 head of cattle to the railhead at Coffeyville, Kansas every year.
Clem could certainly afford to educate his restless son. Will had attended a Cherokee elementary school, Drumgoole, and then briefly studied at the Cherokee National Male Seminary, like his father before him. Will’s mother, Mary, then arranged for him to attend an all-female boarding school where one of his sisters was studying and he and the headmaster’s son became the only male students. This lasted until Mary died in 1890.
Clem then tried boarding schools, first in Tahlequah, then Vinita, and then the Scarritt Collegiate Institute in Neosho, Missouri, from which Will exited after an unfortunate incident involving his attempt to lasso a colt that then ran though a tennis court. Clem’s final effort was Kemper Military School in Boonville, Missouri, where he sent Will to get some discipline.
When Clem next heard of his son, then 18-year-old Will was on the Texas and Oklahoma Territory border, punching cattle. (Will had acquired 75 head of calves from his father at the age of 11, and by the time he was 15 he was running his own brand.) After giving Clem some time to absorb his desertion from the military academy, Will returned to working his herd in the Cherokee Nation. Cowboys were watching the Great Plains get chopped up by fences; folklore had it that their disappearing way of life was still viable in “the Argentine,” which produced the gauchos, and to this day remains a major beef producer for Europe.
In pursuit of the freedom of the open range, Rogers sold his livestock back to his father to pay for a first-class ticket to Argentina. At the less than ripe age of 22, he left Indian Territory in 1902 as an itinerant cowboy. He started on a passenger ship to London because that was the only place to get a ship to Buenos Aires. Once he arrived in South America, he discovered the romance of the gauchos had been overblown and learned firsthand the meaning of the Spanish term peon. His adventures in the Pampas bled away his savings, but led to his first publications in print, when his family and friends took his letters to a couple of local papers.
When Rogers ran out of money, he earned his passage on a freighter to South Africa by nursemaiding livestock. (He would claim later that his ability to deal with the animals was impaired by his seasickness but they could not fire him because of the location.) A couple of months after landing in South Africa, he took on a job of moving some mules to the inland town of Ladysmith. As he was riding a train to Durban to pick up the mules, somebody stole his trunk and his saddle. Everything he had left was in his carrying bag: “13 collars, one shirt—all soiled—one unmarried sock and a clothes brush.” In this impecunious state, Rogers saw a sign advertising Texas Jack’s Wild West Show and determined to apply for a job.
Texas Jack was real enough—Jack was really from Texas and really knew about cowboy skills, but his show took certain liberties made necessary by the location, such as having Zulus and Asian Indians play the part of American Indians in fake battles. Texas Jack had, unbeknownst to Rogers, offered a reward for anybody who could do a rope trick called the Big Crinoline, which involved twirling a small loop around the performer that is gradually let out to encircle other people, horses, even wagons. Rogers chose that trick for his audition and was hired on the spot. Rogers knew how to do rope tricks; working for Texas Jack gave him a chance to learn the ropes of show business:
“[Jack] could do a bum act with a rope that an ordinary man couldn’t get away with, and make the audience think it was great, so I used to study him by the hour and from him I learned the great secret of show business—learned when to get off. It’s the fellow that knows when to quit that the audience wants more of.”
Texas Jack bestowed the stage name that would follow Rogers through the Wild West Show phase of his career, the Cherokee Kid. Rogers saved the $25 a week Texas Jack paid him and in about a year he was able to buy a second-class ticket to Australia. He justified heading home by going east rather than west in a letter to his sister Sallie with what one of his biographers called “dubious geographic logic,” that Australia was closer to America than Africa was. To his father, he was more forthcoming about his motivation: “I must see a bit more.”
An enthusiastic letter of reference from Texas Jack earned the Cherokee Kid a job riding and roping for the Wirth Brothers Circus on a tour of Australia and New Zealand. That gig funded a third-class ticket to San Francisco, which completed Rogers’s first circuit of the world. As Rogers put it: “I started out first class, dropped to second class and came home third class. But when I was companion to those cows on the perfumed voyage to Africa it might be called no class at all.”
Rogers arrived back in Indian Territory in 1904, the year the United States was gearing up, one year late, to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase, a land acquisition that doubled the size of the country. In fact, what Thomas Jefferson had purchased from France was the first right to acquire the land from the Indians, but that process had been proceeding apace by violent and nonviolent means even before the purchase. Indians appeared in the popular imagination first as obstacles to manifest destiny and then as romantic representatives of bygone days before “civilization.”
The fantasy of the vanishing red man and the fact of the vanishing wilderness fueled the popularity of Wild West shows in the United States and around the world. Those shows provided a reliable paycheck for—among lots of fakes—real Indians, real cowboys, and in the case of Will Rogers, a real Indian cowboy.
His first successful assault on the stateside entertainment business was at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, where the major celebration of the Louisiana Purchase took place in the city known as the Gateway to the West. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition (as the official title of the fair was at the time) ran from April 30 to December 1, and drew almost 20 million visitors.
Rogers performed with other Wild West characters, most of them authentic. He started in Colonel Zach Mulhall’s Wild West Show, but he also performed his rope tricks in a St. Louis burlesque house. It’s a measure of the authenticity of the characters involved that the run of Mulhall’s show was interrupted by a gunfight between the colonel and his head stable man that ended with the serious injury of two bystanders and Mulhall being carted off to jail.
Some of Mulhall’s cowboys called it quits after the gunfight, but Rogers found work in two other shows at the fair, which was centrally located for getting work both in St. Louis and in other nearby cities. Rogers was performing his lasso tricks on a stage in Chicago when the next important change in his act was spurred by a small, random event. While Rogers was twirling, a dog from an animal act waiting in the wings ran across the stage. Instinctively, Rogers roped the dog. The audience’s enthusiastic reaction reminded him of one of Texas Jack’s ideas for a good trick: roping a horse on stage as if the show were outdoors.
Rogers bought a pony (named Teddy, after Theodore Roosevelt), staked out a plot of ground the size of a stage, and rehearsed through the winter of 1904–1905 until he and the pony had an instinctive feel for the limitations of a stage’s dimensions. By spring, he had an act worthy of New York City, and Mulhall was out of jail and eager to arrange the booking. Rogers was playing his rope and pony show in Madison Square Garden when lady luck once more took him by the hand.
An 800-pound steer escaped and leaped into the stands, terrorizing the audience. “The Indian Will Rogers,” The New York Herald reported, “headed the steer off.” The Herald subhead announced “Indian Cowpuncher’s Quickness Prevents Harm,” and Rogers was quick to use the publicity to break out of the Wild West niche and into vaudeville, then the heart of American show business.
Before they were killed by motion pictures, vaudeville circuits were the primary employment for entertainers in the U.S. Towns of any significant size had a theater for these traveling variety shows, with many theaters on each “circuit” in towns large and small, typically with a crown jewel theater in New York City. Rogers’s heroism with that rampaging steer made him just barely salable for the booking agents on the vaudeville circuits. Getting work was one thing, but his path to the big time took him from one end of the country to the other, repeatedly. His first gig was a week at Keith’s Union Square, a prominent theater, doing the “supper show” for a low wage. From the $75 Rogers was paid each week, the booking agent took five percent. Rogers also had to stable and feed Teddy. Luckily, the act went over well enough that the Keith’s organization put him on their circuit in Boston and Philadelphia at $140 a week for playing all three shows—matinee, supper and evening—every day.
Rogers started as a “dumb act,” meaning that his entire performance was rope tricks, executed in silence. Occasionally, though, he would miss a trick, and his self-deprecating commentary on those misses played so well that he was soon missing on purpose to set up his laugh lines. In response to a suggestion that his tricks were more impressive if he explained them in advance—“calling his shots”—he did so, giving him more opportunities to talk, and to charm his audiences.
His drawling narration of his tricks became the core of the act. Before long, his rope tricks were something to keep his hands busy while he offered homespun opinions on the events of the day as reported by the local newspapers. In Rogers’s description of how he kept his act fresh, we can see the beginnings of the 24-hour news cycle:
“I get my jokes out of the newspapers…the latest news. At the matinee I pull stuff based on the noon edition of the afternoon papers. Well, before the evening performance all the matinee stuff is stale for the audience…so I use the finals. But by the time the [midnight show] starts, these late evening jokes are also stale, so I get the first edition of the Morning Telegraph and make my monologue out of that. I buy more newspaper extras than any man in the world because I’ve made up my mind no joke goes over after it is six hours old.”
Rogers never made any effort to expand his formal education, but he read newspapers from one end of the country to the other at a time when local newspapers were still as distinctive as the cities they served. “A breakfast without a newspaper is a horse without a saddle,” Rogers said. “You are just riding bareback. Take away my ham, take away my eggs, even my chili, but leave me my newspaper.”
Regardless of how well or poorly educated he was, his powers of observation were beyond question. He once said, “Weddings are always the same, but no two
divorces are alike.” This remark bears a striking resemblance to the opening lines of what many consider the finest novel ever written, Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Since the most influential English translation of Anna Karenina (by Constance Garnett) was published in 1901, it’s possible Rogers read it and was influenced by Tolstoy. Or it could have simply been a case of the proverbial great minds thinking alike.
Of course, any notion that Rogers might have read Tolstoy would have conflicted with the character he played in vaudeville and later in his films—the yokel from the sticks. From about 1915 on, his appeal for audiences was more about the cowboy from Oklahoma looking around at American royalty and finding them buck naked.
Rogers’s uneducated cowboy persona was exaggerated for the stage, but his roots in the mostly rural Cherokee Nation were real and deep, and a country boy often retains some apprehension among people the world in general considers to be his “betters.” In 1916, Rogers was about to take the stage in Baltimore when he was told that President Woodrow Wilson was in the audience. By all accounts, Rogers was intimidated. Joshing the president to his face was a step beyond riffing on impersonal newspaper reports from a considerable distance. Also, Wilson was known to be cold and humorless.
Rogers eased into his political remarks that night with some comments at the expense of one of Wilson’s political rivals, then offered his opinion on the state of American preparedness for the war breaking out in Europe: “There is some talk of getting a machine gun if we can borrow one. The one we have now they are using to train our Army.… If we go to war, we will just about have to go to the trouble of getting another gun.”
Wilson laughed, so Rogers went on to poke fun at the country’s ongoing exchange of diplomatic notes with Germany: “Do you realize, people, that at one time in our negotiations with Germany that [Wilson] was five notes behind?”
Wilson went backstage to greet the cast at intermission, and before the year was out, he was quoting Rogers in his speeches. Rogers considered that performance a turning point in his career—politicians, no matter how powerful, were part of the herd, even if they thought they were sacred cows. He always praised Wilson’s ability to laugh at himself. “You can always tell a big man from a little one,” he later wrote, “the big ones don’t get sore when you joke about them.”
From the days when the Indian Territory newspapers had published Rogers’s letters from his world tour as a cowboy, he kept his clippings. When his act turned to topical humor, he was able to publish an occasional column, but most of his material had a short shelf life. Still, he was able to put together observations over time by topic and composed short books on major controversies. In 1919, his assembled verbal shots at what he considered outrageous negotiations to close World War I into his first book, The Cowboy Philosopher on the Peace Conference.
In 1922, the McNaught Syndicate hired him to write a weekly column for Sunday editions. This feature became so popular that in 1926 he started a daily column, toting a manual typewriter everywhere he went and filing his remarks by Western Union. Before long, politicians considered being ribbed by Rogers a validation of their public importance.
It was also in 1922 that Rogers took his topical humor to radio. After a rough start in the broadcast booth, he learned that his shows were best done before a live audience, since the essence of his act was ad-libbing on the news of the day and the audience feedback was critical to his understanding of what was working for the folks at home. He also needed a studio audience to egg him on.
In one of his radio shows, he got some criticism for mimicking President Calvin Coolidge perhaps too effectively. He purported to have gotten the president, recently returned from a trip to meet with farmers stricken by the economy, to report to the nation:
“Farmers, I am proud to report that the country as a whole is prosperous. I don’t mean by that that the whole country is prosperous, but as a whole it is prosperous. That is, it is prosperous for a hole. A hole is not supposed to be prosperous, and you are certainly in a hole. There is not a whole lot of doubt about that.”
“Coolidge” went on to report that the Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon “has saved some money for the country and done very well for himself.”
There was enough uproar over the “Coolidge” speech that Rogers apologized to the president, who assured him that no offense was taken.
Rogers branched out to radio and print at a propitious time, because vaudeville was being killed by the rise of movies shown, ironically enough, in vaudeville theaters. Film clips were at first a novelty inserted as a section of live variety shows. Vaudeville performers, starting with the “dumb acts,” contributed to their own demise by allowing the filming of their routines in exchange for one big payday that eventually took away their many smaller but steady paydays.
Musical acts and stand-up comics, of course, could not easily make the transition to film while the movies were silent. Rogers, with his roping and joking, was in between what would be considered obvious film material. The roping worked fine, but the jokes had to be reduced to one-line captions, not at all topical. By 1918, he was a headliner for the Ziegfeld Follies, most definitely the big time. The Follies were known for elaborate musical productions featuring fantastical costumes and lots of beautiful women, most of them anonymous Ziegfeld Girls. Many Follies alums made their mark in other media, including Fanny Brice, W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, Josephine Baker and Milton Berle.
Impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, anticipating the trend to film, announced in the New York City newspapers that any member of the Follies who tried to make a motion picture without his permission would be sued for breach of contract. There was a problem with Ziegfeld’s threat as it applied to one of his headliners—Rogers was working on a handshake deal. Did that mean he would bail out of the Follies in the middle of the 1918 run? It did not. Rogers considered his word binding, and he never missed a performance of the Follies while making his first movie, Laughing Bill Hyde, for a producer named Samuel Goldfish (formerly Schmuel Gelbfisz), who would later change his last name to Goldwyn, a name that today is the G in MGM Studios.
Laughing Bill Hyde, an adventure set on the Alaskan frontier, was a hit. The Atlanta Journal review noted “Will Rogers, cowboy wit of the Ziegfeld Follies, is the star of this thriller and Will Rogers is second to none.” Goldfish offered Rogers a one-year contract at $2,250 a week, with an option for another year at $3,000 a week. (Ziegfeld was paying him $1,000 a week.) The contract required Rogers to move to Hollywood, no small undertaking with his family (wife and children) and his horses, a remuda that included a riding horse for each family member, Teddy the show horse, and various polo ponies that came and went after Rogers acquired that expensive hobby.
Rogers reported to Goldwyn Studios in California in June 1919 to begin his second movie, Almost a Husband. Goldfish had officially become Goldwyn two days after he signed Rogers, and he went on to create a genre within silent pictures in which Rogers could shine, since his comedy relied so heavily on words.
Rogers made 11 films for Goldwyn, of which only three survive, but the plot summaries show that they all leaned on what Rogers biographer Ben Yagoda called “the rube melodrama.” Rogers is cast as “a country fellow—not particularly successful, ambitious or bright—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.”
These movies were not great art; they were made for people who wanted to see Rogers, and the films took every opportunity to let him throw a rope, which was a bit harder to write into a script than a song. It might have been the difficulty of working rope tricks into scripts that led Rogers to near bankruptcy a few years after his contract with Goldwyn Studios ended in 1921, because Rogers had ideas on how to do that better himself. Goldwyn did not offer a new contract because Goldwyn Studios was in financial straits that eventually resulted in the merger that created MGM.
Of the three films he self-produced, only “The Ropin’ Fool” survives. He packed 53 rope tricks into less than 30 minutes, highlighting them with the use of white ropes to contrast with his black horse and shooting some tricks in slow motion. The hardest trick, he claimed, was lassoing a rat with a length of string. (This classic still sells on DVD on the Will Rogers museum website.)
Will Rogers Productions had three films in the can when cash flow problems sent him back to the stage and on a series of lecture tours to pay his debts. He played two theaters in the Schubert circuit for two weeks for $8,600, at the time the highest salary ever paid in vaudeville. Ziegfeld constructed a road version of his Midnight Frolic around Rogers, who got 10 percent of the gross receipts. During the Christmas season Rogers made personal appearances at Loew’s movie theaters for $1,500 a pop. The next year, he continued to whittle away at his debts by rejoining the Ziegfeld Follies at $2,000 a week, while his family remained in California. His celebrity also put him in demand as a dinner speaker, and some of his speeches were sold as phonograph records.
In 1921, movie producer Hal Roach came to see Rogers in Frolic. Roach was producing Harold Lloyd’s very popular movies, and he would later work with Laurel and Hardy and on the Our Gang comedies. Roach was scouting for movie talent at the time and he made Rogers an offer, but Rogers, still smarting from his brush with Hollywood, did not relent until 1923. His contract stipulated that shooting schedules would not conflict with the Ziegfeld Follies and Rogers would receive 25 percent of the profits, or a minimum of $2,000 a week. (By comparison, Roach’s biggest star, Lloyd, was earning a minimum $1,000 a week against an 80 percent share of the profits. Stan Laurel, just starting, was making $400, and Roach took home only $1,750.)
Roach was making his mark in comedy, and what he did worked fine without words: slapstick. Rogers shot two-reel comedies in two or three weeks, one after
another. Said Rogers, “All I ever do on the Roach lot is run around barns and lose my pants.” These Roach comedies were not wildly successful, but Roach was happy enough to renew the contract. Rogers declined and negotiated a return to theater in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1924. In the same year, the McNaught Syndicate engaged him to comment on the nominating conventions of both political parties.
Rogers demanded and got $3,100 a week from Ziegfeld, as well as “transportation for myself, one wife, three kids, 2 cars, and not over 12 horses, and a retinue of dogs and cats.” This made him the highest paid performer in the Follies, followed by W.C. Fields, who made $1,750 a week. In the 1924 Follies, Rogers performed sketches in the character he had created for the Roach comedies, Alfalfa Doolittle, who was chairing a Congressional committee “Investigating Investigations.”
Rogers continued with the Follies—with radio and newspapers and speeches on the side—until the end of 1925, when the Broadway producer Charles L. Wagner hatched a plan to renew the tradition of American Lyceums, itinerant speech making that had around the turn of the century featured Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Susan B. Anthony and, in later years, Jack London and William Jennings Bryan. Wagner offered Rogers $82,500, plus expenses, for 75 speeches in a little more than two months, a cross-country tour with a purpose, in Wagner’s eyes, to cement Rogers as the successor to Twain in the public imagination.
The highlight of the tour was Tulsa, Oklahoma, because the show brought in all of the people Rogers came from; it was standing room only. As he got started, someone handed him a jug of flowers from the town of Claremore, which he had long claimed as his home because “white people can’t pronounce Oologah.” He wrote of that performance, “it’s the best I will ever get, and I felt good enough that night to last me the rest of my life.”
This first lecture tour made enough money for both Rogers and Wagner that it would be repeated often, but toward the end of it Rogers got an offer from The Saturday Evening Post to travel to Europe and comment on what he found in a series of mock reports to Coolidge under the running title “Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President,” which were published in book form in 1926. The European excursion extended over five months and produced another book as well, There’s Not a Bathing Suit in Russia & Other Bare Facts, published in 1927.
While in Europe, Rogers started sending a daily “letter to the editor” of The New York Times, which was picked up by the McNaught Syndicate, and ran for many years. He also hustled a number of paid appearances in London and on British radio. On November 15, 1926, back in the U.S., Rogers participated in a four-and-a-half-hour radio program that went out over telephone lines to stations with over 5 million listeners, the first broadcast of the National Broadcasting Company.
In 1927, Rogers shot his last silent film, A Texas Steer, in which he revisited the foibles of politicians in the person of Maverick Brander, a rancher turned congressman from Red Dog, Texas, “where men are men and the plumbing is improving.” Rogers made some 50 silent films between 1918 and 1927.
It would not be until March 22, 1929, that Hollywood would capture the full impact of Rogers. This was the day he signed with Fox Film Corporation to make four talkies over a period of two years for $600,000. The addition of Rogers’s Oklahoma drawl to his movies had the same effect on his Hollywood career that the addition of commentary on current events had on his vaudeville act. From his first of what he called “noisies” in 1929, They Had to See Paris, it was plain that this time would be different. One of his biographers called Rogers Fox’s “only dependable moneymaker until a pint-sized trouper named Shirley Temple came along.” His first role was a newly rich oilman from, not coincidentally, Claremore, Oklahoma. The New York Times named it one of the top 10 films of the year.
By 1932, Rogers had cracked the top 10 box office draws list, at number nine. In 1934, he reached number one. His movies never strayed far from who he really was—a sometimes befuddled Everyman whose decency always prevailed against impossible odds.
Rogers emceed the Oscars in 1934. Characteristically, he used the occasion to poke fun at the movie business: “It’s a racket; and if it wasn’t, we all wouldn’t be up here in dress clothes.” On the pretentious title, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he opined, “If the movies are an art, I kinda think it’ll leak out without bein’ told; and if they’re a science—then it’s a miracle.” Photoplay magazine said of this performance: “Will’s wit changed the big affair from the customary ceremony of long-winded speeches into a joyous riot.”
With his success in movies, this Cherokee from Indian Territory had by hard work and luck become a dominant force in all the entertainment media of his time: vaudeville, the lecture stage, newspapers, magazines, books, radio, and motion pictures. Our telling of his story will continue with how his importance in the world of entertainment combined with his access to news makers made him a major political force through some very difficult political times, including the Great Depression.
Steve Russell gratefully acknowledges the research assistance of Steve Gragert, director of the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma.