with one-liners and off-beat style, he roped in
a generation and beyond
By Joseph H. Carter, Sr., 1992 Inductee
Will Rogers was born in 1879 on a sprawling Cherokee ranch near Oologah, Indian Territory. After working cattle and riding the range, Will Rogers circumnavigated the globe three times. He launched his show business career as a roper in Texas Jack’s Wild West Show in Lady Smith, South Africa, and wrote 3,483 columns syndicated by The New York Times for hundreds of newspapers. Additionally, he authored six best-selling, humor-filled books and uncounted magazine yarns.
With down-home language, off-beat style, crude spelling and quotable one-liners, Will Rogers’ writing easily earned him a slot in the 1971 inaugural class of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, more than three decades after his death.
Atop journalism feats, Will Rogers starred in 71 movies that often topped world box offices. He was an actor and comedian on Broadway, including a long stint in the famous “Ziegfeld Follies” after playing in vaudeville and wild west shows. He was also a pioneer radio commentator.
While show business was a main contributor to his undocumented total wealth that doubtlessly would have capped multi-millions in contemporary dollars, $2,500 fees for a magazine feature were not uncommon for his “must-read,” funny political punditry.
Will Rogers’ bronze statue looms in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the United States Capitol. He is “keeping an eye on Congress,” a quote he invented and a trait of his deep purposes.
On a personal level, while he nominally wore a business suit when performing, Will Rogers’ self-portrait was that of a cowboy. His array of trick roping skills has never been fully duplicated. An extant 1922 two-reel movie titled “The Ropin’ Fool” co-stars him, horses and his lariat.
Despite world fame, home always was Oklahoma for Will Rogers, who was officially dubbed William Penn Adair Rogers when born in a log-walled cabin. His life is a drama reported in scores of biographies, a feature film and in the 1991 musical The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Review that played 982 times on Broadway.
The Papers of Will Rogers, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, required 3,002 pages in five volumes and is prized in most academic libraries worldwide.
Beyond 2,817 terse daily and 666 expansive weekly syndicated columns published in as many as 600 newspapers, Will Rogers was a staple feature writer for the Saturday Evening Post. In 19 volumes, these writings were published again by Oklahoma State University from 1973 to 1983.
In 1928, Will Rogers penned a series of satire feature yarns in Life Magazine, hyping himself as a prank candidate seeking nomination for president. It launched a genre of comedians who borrowed the theme.
Will Rogers was in a single-engine seaplane with the legendary one-eyed pilot Wiley Post on August 15, 1935. They flew around Alaska and were headed toward Point Barrow when they saw an Eskimo encampment and landed. With directions pointing northward, they were about 200 feet aloft when the craft nose-dived into shallow water. The two Oklahomans died on impact, capturing banner headlines in papers worldwide. Post is interred in Oklahoma City’s Memorial Park Cemetery. Will Rogers’ tomb is at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum, a nine-gallery museum in Claremore, just nine miles from the Dog Iron Ranch of his birth.
Joseph H. Carter, Sr. not only wrote about Will Rogers, but he also performed as Will Rogers throughout his life, including 180 shows in Branson, Missouri.