Roping In a Legacy

Times Staff Writer

When he died, the nation mourned. Flags flew at half-staff. Movie screens went dark. Radio broadcasters observed 30 minutes of silence. Under a scorching sun in Glendale, 50,000 people filed past his casket.

In an era of hip-hop and reality TV, it is difficult to grasp the hold this man had on Americans. He was the most beloved person of his day, the country’s first multimedia star.

Damon Runyon wrote in tribute that he was “America’s most complete human document. One-third humor. One-third humanitarian. One-third heart.”


In “a time grown too solemn and somber,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt would say, he “showed us all how to laugh.”

Today this man is remembered dimly, if at all. But in Pacific Palisades, his descendants and admirers are working with architects and curators to change that. They are restoring the ranch where he spent his final years.

The process, say those involved, is about more than repairing a house and grounds on which time and the elements have taken a toll. It’s about resurrecting the largely forgotten legacy of a man whose humor (“I’m not a member of any organized party. I’m a Democrat”) proved a tonic for a nation in the grip of war and depression.

In a peripatetic life, the ranch was the last place Will Rogers called home. And he put his stamp on every inch of it.

My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat.

William Penn Adair Rogers was born Nov. 4, 1879, near Oologah, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), to parents descended from mixed-blood members of the Cherokee Nation.

As a boy, Rogers perfected his roping skills while tending to Texas longhorns on his father’s ranch. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade to join a Texas cattle drive.

Disheartened by the dwindling open range and infected with a wanderlust that would prove lifelong, he traveled to Argentina, then South Africa. There, billed as “the Cherokee Kid — the Man Who Can Lasso the Tail off a Blowfly,” he got his first taste of show business doing rope tricks in Texas Jack’s Wild West Show.

Appearing on U.S. stages, the “weather-bitten cowpuncher,” as one newspaper called him, gained some fame after roping a panicked steer that had leaped into the seats at Madison Square Garden.

He moved to vaudeville, where he displayed a knack for making people laugh even when he wasn’t trying. After muffing a two-rope toss in Philadelphia, he said: “I’m handicapped up h'yar, as the manager won’t let me swear when I miss!” He earned three curtain calls.

Next he moved to the Ziegfeld Follies and Ziegfeld’s midnight Frolic, where his wry observations about politics and international relations made him a headliner.

Rogers’ wife, Betty, had suggested that he enliven his act by commenting on the news. If his quips went over an audience’s head, he would joke: “I guess I’m a couple editions ahead of you folks.”

He twitted the budding temperance movement and its leader, William Jennings Bryan. He tweaked President Wilson’s diplomatic maneuverings before the country entered World War I.

He jabbed at industrialist Henry Ford’s effort to end the war by chartering a “peace ship” with a cargo of pacifists and feminists. Onstage at the Frolic, Rogers said:

“If Mr. Ford had taken this bunch of girls, in this show, and let ‘em wear the same costumes they wear here and marched them down between the trenches, believe me, the boys would have been out before Christmas.”

Politicos and dignitaries secretly hoped to be singled out. As novelist John O'Hara wrote: “A big shot, a major industrialist type, was not a confirmed tycoon until he had been kidded by Will Rogers.”

After the revolutionary-cum-bandit Pancho Villa raided a New Mexico town in 1916, killing 16 people, Rogers appeared in an all-star touring show in Baltimore. President Wilson, not known for his sense of humor, was there.

“I see where they captured Villa,” Rogers told the audience. “Yes, they got him in the morning editions and then the afternoon ones let him get away.” Wilson led the audience in laughter.

Rogers made sport of the nation’s sorry military preparedness, for which Wilson was facing harsh criticism.

“There is some talk of getting a machine gun if we can borrow one,” he said. “The one we have now they are using to train our Army with in Plattsburgh.”

At 38, with a wife and three children, Rogers was exempt from the draft, but he appeared at benefits and performed for returning veterans. In May 1917, he pledged 10% of his next year’s income — $5,200 — to the American Red Cross.

In 1919, the Poet Lariat, as he was dubbed in his Follies days, heeded the invitation of producer Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn) to make silent movies. His first picture, shot in New Jersey, was “Laughing Bill Hyde,” about an escaped convict who shows his goodness while on the run in Alaska. Variety welcomed “a new star to filmdom.”

The producer offered Rogers a contract, on condition that he move to Los Angeles from New York. Will and Betty agreed, lured by the offer of $2,250 a week (more than twice what Ziegfeld paid). The couple bought a mansion in Beverly Hills.

To take advantage of Rogers’ aw-shucks naturalism, Goldwyn created “rube melodramas.” In “Doubling for Romeo,” Rogers played a bashful cowboy in love with the heroine. In “Cupid the Cowpuncher,” he was a cowboy eager to marry off his friends. He often wrote the humorous subtitles himself.

When he was cast as a Swedish fisherman, Goldwyn wired him on location to tell him to wear a blond wig, to which Rogers responded: “If he wanted me to be a blond, he should have took it up with my mother 40 years ago.”

We are living in an age of publicity.

Post-World War I America saw the rise of mass media: radio, newsreels and syndicated newspaper features.

Rogers’ down-home twang, homespun observations and unpretentious integrity — “I am the only man who came out of the movies with the same wife he started with” — made him the biggest celebrity of his day.

By the mid-1920s, his rambling commentaries and pithy “Will Rogers Says” shorts were running in hundreds of newspapers.

In 1925, Rogers launched a 75-performance one-man tour that took him to major cities and into the hinterland. It was a resounding success, especially back home in Oklahoma, where a crowd of 3,000 enjoyed his 2 1/4 -hour monologue. The tour, wrote biographer Ben Yagoda, “cemented his connection to America.”

Rogers signed to make “talking motion pictures.” By 1934, he was the industry’s top box-office attraction; the next year Shirley Temple would succeed him.

By then, Rogers had developed a passion for aviation, flying around the world as a self-appointed goodwill ambassador. Sometimes, he traveled by mail plane — weighing himself and paying the “postage.”

He met the Prince of Wales, Lady Nancy Astor and Mussolini. He became friends with Charles Lindbergh after the aviator’s 1927 transatlantic flight.

Over the years, Rogers traveled widely to raise money for the afflicted: drought victims in Arkansas; flood victims in Mississippi; earthquake victims in Nicaragua, where grateful officials issued five postage stamps in his honor.

When he signed a contract to do seven nationwide radio broadcasts in 1933, at the depth of the Great Depression, he donated his $50,000 paycheck to unemployment relief.

Though exquisitely of their time, his words resonate today: “I don’t care how little your country is, you got a right to run it like you want to. When the big nations quit meddling, then the world will have peace.”

Or: “For three years we have had nothing but ‘America is fundamentally sound.’ It should have been ‘America is fundamentally cuckoo.’ The worse off we get, the louder we laugh.”

[It’s] not really a ranch, but we call it that. It sounds big and don’t really do no harm.

After hearing in the mid-1920s that the city of Los Angeles planned to build Beverly (later Sunset) Boulevard from Beverly Hills to the coast, Will and Betty bought 160 raw acres in Pacific Palisades for $319,442 ($3.5 million in today’s dollars).

The land, between Rivas and Rustic canyons in the Santa Monica Mountains, was beautiful and wild, with views of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, downtown Los Angeles and the ocean.

Rogers hired men with mule teams to clear sagebrush and greasewood. He sketched a master plan, including a polo field and a road with four switchbacks.

In January 1926, the family purchased 84 adjoining acres for about $120,000 ($1.3 million in today’s dollars). Following Rogers’ instructions, his brother-in-law, Lee Adamson, started work on a corral and stable.

By spring, Rogers was eager to get started on a weekend cabin. The couple toyed with a design in the Spanish Colonial Revival style then in vogue, but Will told Betty he didn’t think he could spit in the fireplace in a house that nice.

“Just want a plain and what we used to call a box house,” Rogers said in a letter to Adamson. He wanted to be able to “ride our horses and hitch ‘em right in front of the house.”

To Rogers, the property’s chief attraction was the “barn that jokes built,” a short walk north of the cabin. Near this stable was a corral where he, his friends and his three children — Will Jr., Mary and Jim — spent hours roping calves.

Down below was the polo field where Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and other celebrities came to play. Afterward, they would repair to the Beverly Hills Hotel for cocktails, giving rise, as legend has it, to the Polo Lounge.

In 1928, termites were discovered in Rogers’ Beverly Hills mansion, and he decided to move the family to the ranch. Thus began the conversion of the simple six-room cabin into a year-round residence.

Rogers hired scores of craftsmen to add flourishes. He called the ranch “my own WPA,” referring to the Works Progress Administration, a federal job program. In the end, the house had 31 rooms, including five bathrooms.

Live your life so that whenever you lose, you are ahead.

The ranch, Betty would write later, “was the joy of his life.” Rogers would spend hours loping on Soapsuds or Bootlegger, digesting what he had read in the morning’s papers, and then return to bang out his newspaper column. The columns were all datelined Santa Monica, because that was the location of the nearest Western Union office.

Like the entertainer himself, the ranch was always evolving, with Rogers supervising when he was home or telegraphing instructions from the road. He monitored the planting of every eucalyptus and oak tree and the building of every fence, bridle path and road.

When Betty was touring the Holy Land, Rogers mentioned in his column that he was “raising the roof.” He meant that literally. He had workmen lift the original cabin’s ceiling at one end of the living room by 14 feet so he could practice roping indoors.

The renovation gave him more room to show off the family’s collection of Monterey furniture and mementos. They included the head of a Texas steer, saddles, Navajo blankets and rugs, a leopard skin given to him by a sultan and Western paintings and sculptures by his friends Charles Russell and Ed Borein.

One cherished object was a stuffed calf on casters, presented by Borein, who had tired of being the target when Rogers hauled out a rope after dinner. Rogers practiced so much on the rolling calf that most of its ears wore away.

In early August 1935, Rogers made a last will and testament leaving his estate and earnings to Betty. Then he set out on a far northern sightseeing adventure with a celebrated aviator, his friend and fellow Oklahoman, Wiley Post.

It looks like the only way you can get any publicity on your death is to be killed in a plane. It’s no novelty to be killed in an auto anymore.

In Seattle, Rogers and Post climbed aboard a clumsy hybrid Lockheed aircraft — body and engine from one plane, wings from another, oversized pontoons from a third. They headed for Juneau, Alaska, where bad weather briefly grounded them. Then they skipped across Alaska for several days. Rogers wrote about Eskimos, caribou herds and Mt. McKinley.

On Aug. 15, 1935, they flew into a nasty storm. Post managed to land on a lagoon and asked some fishermen to point him toward the town of Barrow.

As recounted by Richard M. Ketchum, a Rogers biographer, Eskimos watching from a remote shoreline near Point Barrow saw the plane lift off and bank to the right. Suddenly, the engine sputtered and died, and the red monoplane went into a dive.

Rogers’ broken body was pulled from the wreckage, along with his smashed typewriter, which held a sheet of paper on which he had been composing his next column.

Will Rogers — heartland humanitarian, goodwill ambassador, populist favorite of presidents and paupers — was dead at 55. Back at the ranch, all work was halted.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that the loss of no other single life has profoundly affected so great a multitude of people in all countries and all ranks of society,” the Los Angeles Times said. “Kings, statesmen, artists, leaders in every line of human endeavor pass away and others fill the vacancies. No one in the world today can take the place of Will Rogers.”

I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn’t like.

Maintenance and taxes on Rogers’ landholdings strained the family’s finances. In June 1944, his widow deeded the ranch house and surrounding 186.5 acres to the state of California, with conditions: The state would maintain the structures and grounds as a memorial to Rogers. If the property was not properly preserved, it would revert to the family. Two weeks later, she died.

Once under state control, Will Rogers State Historic Park inevitably began feeling less like a home and more like a public park.

In 1952, the state authorized horse boarding there for the purpose of establishing a regular polo program. Over the years, the number of horses increased to 114.

Among the owners were Arnold Schwarzenegger (not yet governor), his wife, Maria Shriver, and other celebrities.

As sheds and pipe stalls rose on pastures and in canyons, the public began complaining that the park had deteriorated and become the domain of a few influential people.

Horses had kicked holes in the walls of the barn. Trees had grown unchecked, blocking views. The ranch house had a leaky roof and a musty smell.

Four years ago, Chuck Rogers, a grandson of the humorist, threatened to sue the state Department of Parks and Recreation for neglecting the property.

Randy Young, a local historian who had befriended the Rogers family and was chairman of the nonprofit Will Rogers Cooperative Assn., launched an effort to boot the horses out of the park.

Park officials ended the private boarding of horses and launched a wide-ranging restoration. One of the first steps was to catalog thousands of objects that Rogers had accumulated — from ropes and spurs to the globe on which he plotted his final trip.

Last December, specialists began disassembling the south wing of the house so they could repair drainage problems, install heating and cooling systems and bolster the structure against movements of the earth.

In the living room, where Rogers had enjoyed sending his rolling calf skittering across the floorboards, every plank was pried loose, carefully labeled and put in temporary storage.

The formal public opening of the house is planned for next spring.

The project architect, Taylor Louden, said he hoped visitors wouldn’t notice all the work that had gone into it. The goal, he said, is to make the house look “like Will just stepped out for a minute.”

State parks officials look forward to reacquainting visitors, particularly schoolchildren, with the ranch.

“This was the home of one of America’s most beloved national figures,” said Ruth Coleman, state parks director.

“Our children need to learn this story.”