Over the last 100 years, there really is no equal to Will Rogers when you calculate the sum of his parts as a stage and film actor, vaudeville performer, humorist and social commentator.
“I have a lot of big ideas,” Will said in 1930, five years before his death in a plane crash in Alaska, then not yet a state. “They just don’t seem to work out. There must be a bit of college professor in me somewhere.”
He was one of a kind.
Before all else, of course, Will, was a cowboy who cherished his sidekick horses as much as he did nourishment itself.
His affection lives in posterity in the statue “Riding into the Sunset,” commissioned by Will’s close friend, Amon G. Carter, and sculpted by Electra Waggoner Biggs. The art portrays Will atop his treasured Soap Suds.
It sits in five locations: the Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth, Texas; at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas; at the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Oklahoma, and at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas.
It speaks a one thousand words about who Will Rogers was.
“Dopey had lived with us for 19 years and now he left us. He was a little, round-bodied, coal-black pony with glass eyes, the gentlest, greatest pony. I don’t know why we called him Dopey, we meant no disrespect.
“When 19 years of your and your children’s lives is linked so closely with a horse, you can sorter imagine our feelings. He was one of the family, he raised our children and learned them to ride. He never hurt one in his life. He did everything right.
“And that’s a reputation that no human can die with.”
Our sister publication, Western Horseman, published a retrospective of Will and his best buds, titled, “Will Rogers and His Horses,” in 1963 by Arnold Marquis.
With the downtime we’re in, we thought it’d be a perfect time to reflect on one of the greats of the Western performance horse industry.
He was of another time and place, but make no mistake, Will Rogers is a part of every horse and every rider.
When we left off, Will was traveling the world in the circus, but he missed Comanche, his prized horse. He wrote home saying that he planned to be back by April of 1903, but “if I don’t get back in April, tell Jim Rider he can rope ol’ Comanche next Fourth.”
Here is Part II of “Will Rogers and his Horses.” (Part I is here.)
By ARNOLD MARQUIS
Will didn’t get back. His itchy feet took him to Australia where he joined the Wirth Brothers Circus as The Cherokee Kid, the Mexican Rope Artist. In those days, the Mexicans had the reputation of being the fanciest ropers in the world.
Will also did trick riding. One matinee, he hooked his toe around the saddle horn and, riding full speed, leaned back until his head almost touched the ground and picked up three handkerchiefs with his hand.
The Governor-General liked it so well, he sent his man to ask Will to do it again.
“Tell him I’ll do it again for $150,” Will said.
“A $150!” the governor’s stooge almost fell down.
“You tell the Governor-General,” Will said, “that if he’ll do it cheaper, I’ll lend him my horse-and the handkerchiefs.”
Everyone chipped in — there’s no record of what the Governor-General anteed up — and Will did the trick again.
Will saved his money and started back to San Francisco with a fat roll, but on shipboard he was euchered into a poker game. He lost it all, and arrived in San Francisco so broke he “was wearing overalls for underpants.” He never played cards again.
It was 1904 now and the St. Louis Fair was on. Will worked the fair on Comanche, dressed like a Mexican. The fair over, Will decided to try vaudeville. He needed a horse he could rope, so he went back to the Mulhall Ranch in Oklahoma and bought- on time- a little black pony and named it Teddy for Teddy Roosevelt. He staked out a plot on the Dog Iron and started training Teddy for his act.
The next spring Will shipped Comanche and Teddy to New York. He had a job with the Mulhall Riders and Ropers in Madison Square Garden.
Will was in the big time now. But he still wanted to get into vaudeville. When he revealed his plans to Colonel Zack Mulhall, the Colonel, not wanting to lose one of his star attractions, told him that if he quit, he could not take old Comanche out of the Garden stalls.
In the dead of night, with his friend Jim Minnick, a Texas cowboy, Will spirited old Comanche out of the Garden stalls and hid him uptown in a side-street livery stable.
But somebody snitched. Colonel Mulhall kidnapped old Comanche back, in effect held him for ransom, and shipped him out of town. Will left, the show, and with Teddy went out to start his vaudeville career.
Will never saw old Comanche again. Remembered by hundreds of cowboys as the King of the Cow Ponies, Comanche died in Florida. Jim Minnick rode Teddy in Will’s vaudeville act. But Jim had to go back to Texas, and Buck McKee an Oklahoma cowboy, took his place.
The act was a hit. After Will did a few hand tricks, Teddy, with Buck McKee in the saddle, dashed out on the stage and just before Teddy reached the footlights, Will lassoed him by all four feet.
He closed his act with the Big Crinoline, the trick that got him his job with Texas Jack in South Africa. Will had the theater ushers lead out the 100-foot rope, up the aisle to the back of the house. Then, mounted on Teddy, he would swing the rope around, letting it out farther and farther until it swished over the heads of the audience. Then he gradually brought it back within the stage area, and pulling Teddy back, let it drop on the stage with a klunk. With a cowboy whoop, he rode off the stage on Teddy.
He brought down the house.
He never talked in his act. You hear a hundred stories on how he started talking, but the only true account is the one recorded in Will Rogers: His wife’s story. When he gradually started talking about the tricks he was doing, he got laughs — which at first distressed him — but when his talking started to go over, he dropped Teddy from the act. From then on he did a “single,” twirling his rope and commenting on everything, especially what he read in the newspapers.
His growing success was reflected in the number of horses he had. He was constantly on the lookout for good horseflesh.
Dopey, a little round-bellied coal black pony with glass eyes, became a family pet. Dopey would come in the house out on Long Island, and even go upstairs. He was intelligent, gentle, and Will said he never made a wrong move, never hurt anybody in his life. Will’s children, Will Jr., Mary and Jim learned to ride on Dopey. Like Teddy, he was good for being roped.
Cowboy, on the other hand, was a fine roping pony. Cowboy was nervous, high strung. Will said he was “fussy and finicky about his head,” but when Will was roping from him, Cowboy was all business, and one of the best.
Chapple, a big bay horse with two white rear sox, become one of Will’s best movie horses. His specialty was jumping off cut-banks and sliding down loose earth on steep grades.
Will kept his horses in a stable near Amityville out on Long Island. And there, Will taught many of his show-business friends to rope and ride, people like Fred Stone, Leo Carrillo, and the great Broadway funny-man, Frank Tinney.
Fred Stone had a place about a half-mile distant and Will used to ride over and visit Fred, riding one pinto, and leading four more. Fred, or anybody else, was never able to learn what the big idea was. Sometimes, Will would ride one pinto over and another back.
Out there on Long Island, Will also had a big Appaloosa-colored mule that he called Muzzy Mule. Often, when he rode with the children, Will rode Muzzy Mule- and roped from him.
Will taught the children riding and roping, even trick riding, almost from the time they were in diapers. All three of the children became experts.
Bill (Will Jr.) rode Pumpkin, a buckskin, and Chapple.
Mary rode a white and brown pinto, Dodo.
Jim rode Shorty, a little sorrel, and many other horses, among them Dukum and Cuba.
Jim is in the horse and cattle business today up around Bakersfield, California. Bill still has horses on his place in Tubac, Arizona. Both became excellent polo players, and Jim still competes in horse shows. He’s been in hundreds.
Mrs. Rogers, Betty, sometimes rode Chapple. The children became so proficient, even when they were very small, that they rode standing up on their mounts at full gallop. And Jimmy and Bill did Roman riding and picked up handkerchiefs from the ground at a dead run.