Plugging into Will Rogers 76 Years after His Crash

“I only know what I read in the papers” was one of the signature observations of Will Rogers as he launched into his humorous observations on the events of his era.

Until his plane crash death in the Alaska Territory (August 15, 1935), Rogers made public appearances, wrote newspaper columns, acted on stage and in films, and delivered radio commentaries about the issues of the day.

Presumably he’d have found plenty of fodder scanning the Internet. His own legacy is out there in cyberspace, awaiting fresh curiosity seekers. The always-eclectic annual summer Book Fair at the Newberry Library provided my motivation to follow some of those threads, spurred on by a 1983 bargain book collection (only $3!) of more than two dozen transcripts, Radio Broadcasts of Will Rogers.

Previously I had been exposed to a broad stroke history of the “Cowboy Philosopher” in the engaging but glitzy 1990s Broadway musical The Will Rogers Follies. That quickly
covered his Cherokee birth and early years in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), worked in some of his observational humor, and of course showcased his Ziegfeld Follies days. True to the play’s upbeat title, there was a sequence with a bevy of Ziegfeld show beauties. Even the ill-fated two-man wilderness plane trip with Wiley Post soared with a song.

For three decades (beginning in 1970), James Whitmore’s one-man stage show Will Rogers’ USA recreated a number of the classic Rogers monologues, introducing that style of humor to new generations. Pointed. Unflinching. Midwestern direct. Yet with his cowboy drawl, still warm and respectful.

Online now, curiosity about Will Rogers easily leads to other recreations, especially with bits that seem amazingly prescient in their focus, such as a 1926 talk about debt.

Better still, the man himself is out there, captured on film, as in his 1931 “Bacon and Beans and Limousines” talk. It was part of the “President’s Organization on Unemployment Relief Broadcast.” That would be Republican President Herbert Hoover, whose efforts Rogers, a dedicated Democrat, supported. It was all about jobs.

Will Rogers took the ordinary person’s perspective in his criticism of political rhetoric and posturing, using as examples such topics as Prohibition’s seemingly intractable faceoff between the two sides of “wet” (repeal) and  “dry” (no booze!).

It’s easy to substitute some of today’s hot-button issues and come to some of the same conclusions as Rogers, such as: “If you could take the politics out of Prohibition, it would be more beneficial to this country than if you took the alcohol out of our drinks.”

Yet perhaps Will Rogers was not so much a soothsayer about the future, just a keen observer of human nature’s most self-indulgent excesses, which always seem to reappear. It is immensely entertaining to revisit his work. It is also reassuring. Even through the Great Depression, Will Rogers was right. As a country we could, and did, get through it.

© 2011 Walter J. Podrazik

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