Article abstract: An internationally prominent humorist and satirist, Rogers functioned as a constructive social critic and humanitarian as well as an entertainer.
William Penn Adair Rogers was born November 4, 1879, in the Indian Territory of the United States of America near what eventually became Oologah, Oklahoma. Both of his parents came from the Indian Territory and contributed to his status as a quarter-blood Cherokee Indian. His father, Clement Van (Clem) Rogers, was a rough and wealthy rancher, farmer, banker, and businessman, in addition to being a prominent politician. His mother, Mary Schrimsher Rogers, was a loving woman who came from a financially successful and politically powerful family. Will was the youngest of eight children, three of whom died at birth, and the only male to survive childhood.
Rogers developed a lasting love for the life and basic skills of the cowboy, horseback riding and roping, in his early years. At home, he adored his affectionate mother but developed a complex and not completely positive relationship with his father. Rogers clearly loved his father, who provided a masculine establishment figure with whom to identify. At the same time, Will possessed a strong personality which eventually clashed with that of the elder Rogers. Then, at age ten, disaster entered the young Oklahoman’s life when his mother died and the closing of the open range heralded an end to the cowboy’s life. These conditions changed a relatively secure and happy child into a sad wanderer who sought desperately to replace the love and sense of purpose that had been taken from him.
Tension increased between Rogers and his father in the years following Mary Rogers’ death. The elder Rogers was particularly infuriated by his son’s uneven performance in school. Between the ages of eight and eighteen, Rogers attended six different educational institutions and left each one under questionable circumstances. His main interests during these years were playing the class clown and participating in theatrical activities. He also developed a growing fascination with trick roping. In 1898, after running away from the last school he attended, the eighteen-year-old embarked on a seven-year odyssey. He worked variously as a wandering cowboy, as the manager of the family ranch, and as a trick-rope artist in Wild West shows, then turned to vaudeville. His travels took him literally across the globe. Such behavior merely increased the elder Rogers’ dissatisfaction with his son. The son, on the other hand, manifested guilt at not having lived up to the father’s expectations and example of success.
One final factor remains to be discussed in connection with Rogers’ teenage and early adult years: his sensitivity to his Cherokee Indian heritage. This sensitivity was evident in his militant reaction to any criticism of Indians or those of Indian ancestry. Furthermore, because of his own Indian background, he was the victim of racial prejudice in trying to establish relationships with women.
The year 1905 proved to be a crucial one for Rogers. He went to New York and entered vaudeville as a trick-rope artist. At the same time, he began making serious proposals of marriage to Betty Blake of Roger, Arkansas, whom he had first met in 1899. When Rogers and Blake were married in 1908, the Oklahoman had taken the first step in what proved to be one of the most successful entertainment careers in American history. Perhaps more important, however, these events assisted Rogers in overcoming the sadness which had enshrouded him since youth: His marriage helped to replace the female love and sense of belonging he had lost when his mother died, while his success in show business enabled him to establish a more positive relationship with his father and compensated Rogers for the loss of the cowboy life.
Will Rogers’ career can be divided into four periods. During the first, from 1905 to 1915, he became a successful vaudevillian. He began his stage career with a trick-roping act, in which he lassoed simultaneously a moving horse and its rider. Gradually, the young performer began making comical remarks as his lariats whirled about. By 1911, he was a bona fide monologuist, making humorous comments about other artists and the theater world. Traveling the famous Orpheum Circuit, he used the same material each evening. Rogers also toured England and Western Europe several times. The Rogers family numbered five by 1915: Will and Betty, William Vann Rogers, Jr. (born 1911), Mary Amelia Rogers (born 1913), and James Blake Rogers (born 1915).
The next stage in Rogers’ rise to prominence started in 1915, when he began performing in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic. The Midnight Frolic was staged on the roof of the New Amsterdam Theater in New York City, the home of the Ziegfeld Follies. Rogers encountered a problem working in the Midnight Frolic. Since it attracted many repeat customers, he had to struggle to present new material each night. Eventually, the daily newspapers provided him with constantly changing material concerning contemporary society upon which he could base his humorous monologues.
Rogers’ career received a giant boost in 1916, when he joined the Ziegfeld Follies. Within two years, Rogers had finished developing the basic characteristics of his humor. Fittingly, it was at this time that the budding comedian became known as the Cowboy Philosopher and began each performance with his famous line: “Well, all I know is what I read in the newspapers.” Rogers’ humor was based on the following precepts: Proven material was mixed with continually changing jokes about contemporary news; neutrality on controversial topics was maintained by poking fun at all sides; truth and realism, sometimes exaggerated, provided the best foundation for humor; the comical style involved the projection of Rogers’ personality. With his humor resting on these tenets, Will quickly assumed the characteristics of a cracker-barrel philosopher and satirist who functioned as a constructive social critic. As such, he became increasingly serious about what he said.
An additional facet of Rogers’ life emerged during World War I: his genuine humanitarianism. He pledged one tenth of what he made during the conflict to the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, and he was extremely active in raising funds for both organizations.
The third stage of Rogers’ career encompassed the years from 1918 to 1928. He became a national...
(The entire section is 2700 words.)