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Oklahoma Memories

Will Rogers Memorial Dedication

2009-11-23

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"I think of his nobility. I thought of it a few weeks ago in Paris when I stood before this impelling statue, this speaking likeness which we have just unveiled, a replica of which will stand for all time in the Hall of Fame in our nation's capitol."

That's the voice of Governor E.W. Marland speaking at the dedication of the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, announcing that a statue of Will Rogers will join a statue of Sequoyah in the Hall of Statues in the Old House Chambers in the Capitol in Washington.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

At the time of his death on August 15, 1935, Will Rogers was the most well-known Cherokee Indian to come from Oklahoma. He had appeared in 71 movies, was Hollywood's top box office draw, had written more than 4,000 newspaper columns, and had the highest rated program on network radio.

On the anniversary of his birth, November 4, 1938, led by Governor E.W. Marland, thousands of people gathered in Claremore to dedicate the Will Rogers Memorial. NBC Radio carried the dedication live on a nationwide network.The broadcast included a number of his friends speaking from various parts of the country. Among them Eddie Cantor who recalled he and Rogers working together:

"And how well I remember when I joined the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917 and found Will Rogers the big star of that show. I can't tell you how elated I was. I watched him at every performance, and I learned more from studying him in the few years we were together than I could have learned in a lifetime anywhere else. His wit, philosophy, his kindliness, his humanness. We'll never know how much Will Rogers gave of his time, his money, and himself."

George M. Cohan speaking from New York told about a 1916 trip he and other Broadway actors made with Will Rogers to Washington:

"The Friars Club of New York was making its annual tour that summer playing the large cities, one night each. It was an all-star aggregation, fifty of the biggest names in the show world gathered together for the trip. A night in Washington was not available on account of contracted bookings at the National Theatre there. 'Well, now, that's too bad,' Bill said. 'Sorry we don't play Washington. President Wilson told me he'd surely come to the show if we could book a night there.' Well, we couldn't get Washington, so we played a matinee in Philadelphia and Baltimore that evening. When we arrived in Baltimore at 7:30 in the evening, we all wondered as we stepped from the special train why the City Council, Chamber of Commerce, brass bands, mounted policemans and whatnot were not at the station to greet us as they had been in all the other cities. 'Where's the crowd? Where's this reception committee everybody has?' 'Why, they're all in front of the Academy of Music,' the stationmaster told us. 'The whole town's gathered there to see President Wilson. He's driving over from Washington to see your show and expects to arrive at the theatre at 7:45pm.' Well, a cheer went up from all the members of the star company. Everybody, of course, delighted to think the President would take all that trouble, do all that travel, just to see our little frolic. So we formed in line, paraded to the theatre where we were to play, at the Academy that evening, and as we came inside the theatre we heard the cheers and saw the flags waving, great mob pushing, shoving, surging to get a look at the President who had just arrived in his car. Well, the house was packed, the President and his body occupied a stage box. The show was quite a hit. The final curtain fell, the Star Spangled Banner was played. I rushed from backstage to the President's box, and as Abbot of the Friar's Club, which I was at that time, I thanked the President for the fine compliment he'd paid us by coming all the way from Washington to Baltimore to see the show. 'Oh, no, not at all, not at all. My goodness, me,' said President Wilson. 'I'd travel ten times that distance any day just to see and listen to as wise and clever a man as Will Rogers.' Rogers is what he came to see."

Will Rogers remembered by his friends, the stars with whom he worked. You can learn more about Will Rogers and our American Indian heritage by visiting the Oklahoma History Center, NE 23rd Street just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.