Enthusiasts work to boost humorist's fading popularity

Tuesday, December 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CLAREMORE, Okla. (AP) _ In a spacious hillside museum, reminders of Will Rogers' death 66 years ago are kept in a small, out-of-the-way room, leaving more space for memorabilia on his life.

Nearly 10 years has passed since a play about Rogers opened on Broadway and a spate of books were released. The memory of the floppy-eared trick roper, pioneer broadcaster and cinema star seems to be fading fast, especially with the younger generation.

Michelle Lefebvre-Carter, director of the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, and other Rogers enthusiasts hope a new round of publicity will revive the image of America's premier humorist of the early 20th century.

``We feel like we really need him in the 21st century,'' Lefebvre-Carter said.

The A&E television network plans to air a biography early next year. C-Span and E! recently featured Rogers and pondered the Alaska plane crash that killed him and acclaimed pilot Wiley Post on Aug. 15, 1935.

A renewal could entice 20th Century Fox to release more of Rogers' talking films on video. Four were released earlier.

Rogers' diverse accomplishments and philanthropy could influence youths to pattern their lives after him, Lefebvre-Carter said.

But even young people in northeast Oklahoma, where Rogers learned trick roping from a freed slave on his father's ranch, admit they know little about the man officially deemed the state's favorite native son.

Will Rogers High School down the road in Tulsa owns the only original portrait Rogers sat for and the last original photo of him alive.

But students, routinely ferried to the museum as freshmen, say Rogers was just an obscure famous man to them when they started school.

``I really didn't know who he was, some cowboy guy,'' said Michael Lins, now a senior who studied Rogers and school history.

About 250,000 people a year visit Will Rogers State Historic Park outside Los Angeles, where Rogers lived until his death. Older visitors know who his is.

``A lot of the younger children and younger generation, you have to teach them more about him,'' park guide Mike Allan said.

Lefebvre-Carter's husband, Joseph Carter began promoting Rogers when he became head of the memorial in 1989.

Before retiring as director, Carter wrote ``The Life and Writings of Will Rogers'' and encouraged authors to dust off an unproduced play. ``The Will Rogers Follies'' won six Tony Awards during a Broadway run in the early '90s.

Heavily influenced by his mother, Rogers _ born in 1879 _ grew up near present-day Oologah, north of Claremore, in what was then Indian Territory. His father's ranch house there is also a museum.

As a teen-ager, he starred as a trick roper in wild west shows. Then came Vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies.

His homespun humor, mixed with his rope tricks, attracted fans. His radio and film careers budded.

Rogers hosted the nation's first coast-to-coast radio hookup in 1922 and starred in 71 movies, 50 of them silent films. He was one of America's premier cinema stars when he died.

He conferred with presidents and authored six books and thousands of newspaper columns, writing as he traveled the world as an unofficial U.S. ambassador.

He was also a forerunner of comedians who subsist on political satire.

Five presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Franklin D. Roosevelt were the butt of his jokes. But Rogers seldom took jabs at politicians whose fortunes were fading, an etiquette long since abandoned.

``I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn't like,'' he said in his most famous quote.

Award-winning actor James Whitmore played Rogers for 30 years on stage.

``He was a wise man who was also very funny,'' said Whitmore. ``A part of his wisdom was that he realized that fact and realized that the human race is pretty funny, too.''

A quarter Cherokee, Rogers decried prejudice against American Indians that was prevalent in his day. He befriended famous aviator Charles Lindbergh and promoted air travel, but criticized Congress because the United States then lagged Europe in civilian and military aviation.

His death drew nationwide sympathy for his wife, Betty. Telegraphs of condolence from FDR and Groucho Marx are kept in the small room alongside a black typewriter, its keys flustered, that went down in the plane.

Also displayed are the gray pinstriped suit and tan dress shoes he wore the day he died. Yellowed, framed newspaper pages on his death hang from the walls. On one end, a model of the crash site is beneath a replica of black sky. A portrait of Rogers hangs in simulated distant darkness.

Elsewhere, the museum is spacious as a presidential library, its limestone block exterior rustic as a frontier fort. Rogers bought the land and planned to retire there.

Across the street is Rogers State University, named for him. Rogers County, which includes Claremore, is named for his father, Clem, also once a banker and Confederate officer.

In a sunken garden in front, a statue of Rogers on a horse, perched atop a 10-foot-high limestone pedestal, overlooks Will Rogers Boulevard and the Tiawah Valley.

Behind it, a locked iron gate protects the entrance of his tomb, which also contains the remains of his wife, three of his children and a daughter-in-law. Will Rogers Jr. is buried in Arizona.

Patrons have rubbed the gray-green patina finish off a large bronze statue in a museum foyer, leaving a brassy sheen on his shoes.

The walls insides are adorned with old movie posters, photographs and paintings that give color to a folksy celebrity from a black and white world.

Displays include busts, saddles and a family room replica with a mounted longhorn cow head.

``I guess he was pretty cool for his time,'' Will Rogers high freshman Amanda Barron said.