An Everyman for All Time: Will Rogers' Market Shore Was Bigger Than Any Entertainer's or Writer's, Past or Present. His Influence Was Even Greater

By Burns, Robert | Success, June 2011 | Go to article overview

An Everyman for All Time: Will Rogers' Market Shore Was Bigger Than Any Entertainer's or Writer's, Past or Present. His Influence Was Even Greater


Burns, Robert, Success


It is Oct. 30, 2010, at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. A 60-year-old rally-goer is comparing Will Rogers with The Daily Show's Jon Stewart.

"[Rogers] made America feel good during hard times, and he did it with fun," the rally-goer says. "He'd just stand around with that little Oklahoma drawl, doing rope tricks. He kind of had a fireside chat with the American people, like Roosevelt did. I mean the guy was a legend."

The rally-goer got the "legend" part right, and Stewart's style of satire does beg comparison, but in his time, Will Rogers was more popular, more influential and had a bigger market share than Stewart or any other entertainer since, says Steve Gragert, director of the Will Rogers Memorial Museums in Claremore and Oologah, Okla.

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"At the time of his death [in 1935], Will was reaching 40 million readers at a time when the population was only 120 million," Gragert says. "That's one in three Americans. He also had the highest-rated radio program on Sunday evenings."

Don't forget that Rogers authored books and magazine articles and traveled on lecture tours all while producing his newspaper columns, "Daily Telegrams," Gragert says. Also, during a six-year period, Rogers starred in 21 highly acclaimed motion pictures, taking top box office status in 1934 and becoming Hollywood's highest-paid actor of the time.

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It was Rogers' plain-speaking, often self-deprecating humor that resonated with people. He poked fun at the prominent and the elite, but never at underdogs--even underdogs who had once been elite themselves ("I'm always agin' the party that's up," he said).

With his sense of fair play, work ethic and openness to new technology and media, Rogers set an inspiring example to others seeking to better themselves, particularly as they faced the stark realities of the Depression years.

Catching the Breaks

''The successful don't work any harder than the failures. They get what is called in baseball the 'breaks.'"

Rogers would be the first to say he got "the breaks"--a lot of breaks, in fact. Born Nov. 4, 1879, in a log house in the Cherokee Nation near what is today Oologa, Okla., Rogers was a true son of the frontier. His father, Clement Vann Rogers, was a prosperous rancher, a Cherokee judge, senator, banker and businessman. His mother, Mary America Schrimsher, was someone usually described as a "Methodist churchwoman."

Both parents were part Cherokee, and Will himself was considered 9/32 Cherokee. Clem named his eighth and final child after Col. William Penn Adair, the Confederate Indian battalion chief he had served under during the Civil War.

Though Clem had lost a profitable ranching operation because of the war, he was an expert horseman and shrewd businessman. After the war, he bought Texas longhorn cattle for $1 a head, fattened them on native bluestem grass, then drove them north to sell at a Kansas railhead for $40 a head. Clem's labor costs were minimal, there was no income tax and Will grew up the son of a wealthy man. He was also privileged in other ways, being raised in a progressive household. Mary was a talented musician, and she turned the seven-room, log-walled house into a gracious and luxurious home, writes Ben Yagoda in Will Rogers: A Biography.

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Will grew up working hard on his father's ranch, but he wasn't the stereotypical cowboy; he didn't carry a gun and didn't care about hunting or fishing either. As the son of a wealthy and indulgent father and with little patience for routine, he would often take off to visit friends in Texas or to enter roping contests.

One of his father's ranch hands, a freed slave, had taught Will to do rope tricks. It was this skill, along with what Rogers called a series of "breaks," that led him from roping cattle to making an unsuccessful go of it as a gaucho in Argentina, then to working his way to South Africa to perform in a Wild West show, then to Europe, Australia and eventually back to the United States, where he did rope tricks for vaudeville audiences. …

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