Enthusiasts Work to Boost Interest in Will Rogers

Article excerpt

CLAREMORE -- In a spacious hillside museum, reminders of Will Rogers' death 66 years ago are kept in a small, out-of-the-way room, leaving more space for memorabilia on his life.

Nearly 10 years since a Broadway play about Rogers and a spate of books, the memory of the floppy-eared trick roper, pioneer broadcaster and cinema star seems to be fading fast -- especially with the younger generations.

Michelle Lefebvre-Carter, director of the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, and other Rogers enthusiasts hope a new round of publicity will revive the image of America's premier humorist of the early 20th century.

"We feel like we really need him in the 21st century," Lefebvre- Carter said.

The A&E television network plans to air a biography in early 2002. C-Span and E! recently featured Rogers and pondered the Alaska plane crash that killed him and acclaimed pilot Wiley Post on Aug. 15, 1935.

A renewal could entice 20th Century Fox to release more of Rogers' talking films on video. Four were released earlier.

Rogers' diverse accomplishments and philanthropy could influence youths to pattern their lives after him, Lefebvre-Carter said.

But even young people in northeast Oklahoma, where Rogers learned trick roping from a freed slave on his father's ranch, admit they know little about the man officially deemed the state's favorite native son.

Will Rogers High School down the road in Tulsa owns the only original portrait Rogers sat for and the last original photo of him alive.

But students, routinely ferried to the museum as freshmen, say Rogers was just an obscure famous man to them when they started school.

"I really didn't know who he was, some cowboy guy," said Michael Lins, now a senior who studied Rogers and school history.

About 250,000 people a year visit Will Rogers State Historic Park outside Los Angeles, where Rogers lived until his death. Older visitors know who he is.

"A lot of the younger children and younger generation, you have to teach them more about him," park guide Mike Allan said.

Lefebvre-Carter's husband, Joseph Carter began promoting Rogers when he became head of the memorial in 1989.

Before retiring as director, Carter wrote The Life and Writings of Will Rogers and encouraged authors to dust off an unproduced play. The Will Rogers Follies won six Tony Awards during a Broadway run in the early `90s.

Heavily influenced by his mother, Rogers -- born in 1879 -- grew up near present-day Oologah, north of Claremore, in what was then Indian Territory. His father's ranch house there is also a museum.

As a teen-ager, he starred as a trick roper in wild west shows. Then came Vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies.

His homespun humor, mixed with his rope tricks, attracted fans. His radio and film careers budded.

Rogers hosted the nation's first coast-to-coast radio hookup in 1922 and starred in 71 movies, 50 of them silent films. …