The Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore is celebrating the discovery of some missing papers belonging to the great humorist. The collection is causing excitement among scholars interested in studying Rogers.
One of them is a university professor portraying Rogers in the Arts and Humanities Council's annual Chautauqua series this week.
"Now don't get scared and start turning off your radios. I'm not advertising or trying to sell you anything," said Will Rogers in one of his more famous radio speeches. In what came to be known as the "Bacon, Beans and Limousines" address, Rogers commiserated with a country suffering through the Great Depression. "We'll hold the distinction of being the only nation in the world that ever went to the poorhouse in an automobile."
The original transcript of the speech was among a box of Rogers' papers recently discovered in Arizona by his grandson, Clem Rogers, the adopted child of Will Rogers, Junior. It turned out to be a real treasure.
"Clem goes back after Will Rogers, Jr., died and was digging through an old garage can and he found this box of books," said Will Rogers Memorial director Joe Carter. "He called us and said 'you guys get out here and get this.'"
Carter couldn't drive there fast enough. The papers, once in the Rogers family offices in Beverly Hills, were believed to have been lost. The rare discovery includes speeches, radio transcripts, notes for newspaper columns, and letters. Most are typewritten, but many of the papers are written in Rogers' own hand, on the hotel stationery or Western Union paper he often used on his travels.
It wasn't the only treasure Rogers' grandson turned over that day. "All of a sudden, he said, 'wait just a minute, you guys might want this.' He walked in and walked back out with this hat," Carter explained. The flat rimmed straw hat is one that Rogers wore in a portrait. The memorial recently loaned by the painting for an exhibit.
The museum is now analyzing and appraising the documents, which will be available for research only. "For a scholar to get their hands on something like this is truly extraordinary," Carter said. "They kill me for touching it without white gloves on."
Scholar Dr. Doug Watson is eager to get his hands on the papers. In Tulsa to portray Rogers in the Chautauqua series of performances, Watson predicts the notes will reveal that Rogers was a precise planner. "New papers are always exciting. You see part of his appeal was that he could talk off the cuff. But I think a lot of times when he talked off the cuff, he did it with some sense of where he wanted to go, and these papers might reveal that."
Watson's portrayal of Rogers focuses more on his social and political humor than his image as a cowboy roper. For one thing, he says, Rogers was such a great roper it's intimidating to try to match him. He hopes to convey Rogers' concern for people and interest in American society. "He appealed to the common people; to the people who were down and out," Watson explained. "Not because he was down and out, but because they understood he was an advocate for them."
America loved Will Rogers for that. And now, something more of him has is preserved.
Words and thoughts once missing, are now back home with him.
If you'd like to know more about Will Rogers, the memorial is open year-round, 365 days a year, 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM.
You can attend Doug Watson's portrayal of Rogers this weekend at Chautauqua.
Friday night's performance focuses on Oklahoma historian Angie Debo. Will Rogers is Saturday night. Music and picnicking start at 7:00 PM, with the program beginning at 8:00 PM on the campus of OSU-Tulsa.