This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
Click here to return to the index of selected articles.
A TRIBUTE TO WILL ROGERS
by Thomas Harvill, © 2002
(From Radio Recall, October 2002)
"In the weird half light of a summer night in the far Northland, a red, low-winged monoplane skimmed gracefully along the surface of a shallow river that pierced the bleak Alaskan tundra. The ship gained speed, climbed a scanty fifty feet, and then plunged awkwardly, out of control, to the water below. It was as if some invisible hunter with a powerful, silent weapon had sent a lethal charge into the gaily-colored, man-made bird. No one moved in the broken airplane. Its occupants had made their final landing."
So goes the opening of P. J. O'Brien's biography of that ambassador of good will and prince of wit and wisdom, Will Rogers. It was August 15, 1935 when the famous humorist and his one-eyed master pilot, Wiley Post, plowed into the water off Point Barrow. A frightened Eskimo seal hunter, Clair Oakpeha, saw the crash. He called to the occupants, received no reply and, realizing they were beyond help, hurried off to a U. S. Army Signal Corps radio station fifteen miles away. It took him three hours and, exhausted, he gasped. "Bird men dead. Red bird blow up."
Will Rogers illustration
by Bobb Lynes
Will Rogers was a hero of mine, even as a young boy. He was a movie star, a rancher, a cowboy and horseman, and a performer on stage, radio and screen. He learned to spin a rope early on. He became so proficient with a lariat, he could throw three lassos at once: The first around the horse's neck, the second around the rider, and the last rope went under the horse and around its legs. He was placed in the Guinness Book of World Records for that feat. I remember the day he died. My family lived in a small stucco house in Walnut Park, California, and we spent part of our evenings listening to the half-hour mystery programs on the old Philco radio. That evening the program was interrupted with the news of the crash and the death of the most popular and best-loved comedian of that era who warmed the hearts of everyone during those Great Depression years. He was an icon of hope and a master of common sense that was hungrily received by the ordinary folks of the day as well as those in high places.
I recall reading once of an appearance Rogers made before congress. He opened his remarks by saying that as a comedian he felt out of place in the assembly of so many professional clowns. It brought the house down. But Will could say such things. Even President Roosevelt, was known to rare back and laugh out loud at the little cowboy's antics. He loved to punch holes in politician's balloons. He was asked once why he was a Democrat. He replied, "Everyone has a right to some foolishness."
His full name was William Penn Adair Rogers and he was born in Claremore, Oklahoma, (Indian Territory) on November 4, 1879. Both his parents were part Cherokee. As a boy, he attended a military school in Booneville, Missouri, but dropped out in the 10th grade to become a cowboy. Will never quit learning, however. He was an avid reader and thinker and loved talking to people.
Along with his stage and screen careers, he wrote more than 4000 syndicated columns in his lifetime. On NBC radio, he began "Will Rogers' Headliners" in April 1933 under the sponsorship of Gulf Oil. His show was later on CBS. Often he would begin his radio monologue with a nearby alarm clock set to go off in 10 minutes. When it rang, he stopped his piece.
In 1925, he was the first, and only, honorary mayor of Beverly Hills. Will Rogers appeared in 44 films, from his first in 1918, "Laughing Bill Hyde," to his last in 1935, "In Old Kentucky." The one I remember most was "Steamboat 'Round the Bend," in 1935, with an elderly Irving S. Cobb and a very young Anne Shirley. Will was so popular he was nominated for President in 1932.
In my high school days, my friends and I would sometimes follow the old Sunset Blvd, which twisted and turned from Hollywood, down to the Will Rogers State Beach, a bit north of Santa Monica. About half way, we would pass the old Will Rogers Polo Grounds off to the left. It was still operating in those days. All the Rogers family members were enthusiastic polo players.
Will was a devoted family man and said of his wife, Betty, "She was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. I ain't got no sense... Betty made me what I am." Betty said of Will, "Will can't help being funny no matter where he happens to be." She said, "He's always himself. He doesn't try to be funny. He just is." Their daughter, Mary, was a Broadway actress; their eldest son, Will, Jr. was a successful actor and Congressman; another son, Jim, was a lifelong horse and cattle rancher. Their youngest son, Fred, died at age two.
"I never met a man I didn't like," Will once said. Whether he really did or not, we'll never know. He was a blessing to all who knew him, viewed his movie and stage presentations, and read his syndicated columns. Unfortunately, he barely made it to senior citizen status; he died at age 55. After all these years, Will Rogers is still a hero of mine, a prince of wit and wisdom.
About the Author: Thomas Harvill is a columnist in North Carolina who writes occasional articles under the by-line "It Occurs to Me", which he emails to friends and associates.