THE OPEN MIND
Title: “Man of the Year”: Will Rogers
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Steve Allen, Fred Allen
HEFFNER: Hello, I’m Dick Heffner. The name of this program is “Man of the Year”. Today it tells the story of a humorous philosopher, professional joy-giver who is one of the most lovable and downright decent human beings in all of American history.
VOICE: WRCA-TV with the co-operation with the Saturday Review presents “Man of the Year”, a weekly television program devoted to the individual men and women who throughout past years have helped make the America we know today.
“Man of the Year” features Richard D. Heffner, news commentator, historian, and author of A Documentary History of The United States. Each week at this time, “Man of the Year” brings you the story of a man or a woman who best symbolizes an epic, a movement, or a year in the American past.
HEFFNER: Frequently a year or an epic in our history stands out quite vividly in our minds, a reminder of good days past, or perhaps a symbol of less happy events, of depression and trouble. Well, if you’re old enough to recall the year nineteen hundred and thirty-five, then you’ll remember that it was still a year of comparative hard times for most of us.
For in its wake, the great crash of 1929 had left the worst depression America had ever known. Bread lines and soup kitchens seemed to extend from one end of the nation to the other for longer than we like to think. Apple sellers had been found everywhere. Even in the nation’s capitol in Washington. All of this was demoralizing beyond compare. Yet in 1935 we were beginning to come out of it all; to come out of it without political or economic revolution, without any violent change in the American way of life.
Perhaps just as responsible as any private citizen, for the fact that by 1935, we Americans still had balance, sanity, and a sense of humor – was our nominee for “Man of the Year” in nineteen hundred and thirty-five, the beloved Will Rogers, our nation’s greatest humorist. 1935 was the year that Will Rogers died, killed in an airplane crash in Alaska, the crash that also took the life of famed aviator Wiley Post.
And for those perhaps too young to be able to remember him, well, maybe it seems kind of strange to make a national hero out of a humorist. Yet those of us who do remember August 1935 remember the universal sorrow that greeted the news that their ill-fated airplane had crashed and killed these two great Americans, Will Rogers and Wiley Post.
Post, an old friend of Rogers’, who had broken many flying records before, was now trying to go north to the Orient in the plane that crashed in Alaska. Will Rogers, who had long been an active enthusiast of flying, was always ready for some new kind of adventure. And this trait, like many others, surely endeared him even more to his more earth-bound countrymen.
Will Rogers and Wiley Post, then, on their journey, were constantly in the public eye. One of the nation’s great aviators, and also unquestionably the nation’s most popular and beloved great humorist, these men were constantly in the public eye, right up until the last moment, when death took them both; a plane crash in Alaska, and a tragic end for the two men, yet not the end of our feelings for Will Rogers. For beneath this impressive tomb in Oklahoma now sleeps the simple American humorist. And the great crowds that have visited the Rogers Memorial at Claremore, Oklahoma, have been a tribute to his influence, to his fame; a tribute as lasting as the Shrine of Sun, built to his memory in Colorado.
On November 4, 1879, about 4 miles northeast of Oologah in Indian Territory that was to become Oklahoma (Will Rogers himself had a good deal of Indian blood, mixed, to be sure, with Irish stock as well)…yet, Will wasn’t, by any means, just a struggling Indian boy who had made good. His father was a prosperous banker and rancher, and young Will had good opportunities before him. He was intensely proud of his Cherokee heritage. Possibly it was this pride that started him off on a Western tack that he never really abandoned. Rope tricks were his favorite, of course, and roping and (???) and all of those trappings and trimmings of Western life…these things appealed to Will enormously even at a tender age, and he was to parley these into a tremendous asset, becoming a Western showman, a professional cowboy rather than following in his father’s banking, ranching footsteps. In a sense, Will took the West all over the world, so to speak.
In South Africa, in 1902 he joined Texas Jack’s Wild West Circus as “The Cherokee Kid”, rough-rider and trick rope artist. Now, Will didn’t have about him all the pomp and the circumstance of Western showmen like Buffalo Bill Cody. Essentially he was too shy a person to become the impresario of a Western show, to take the kind of lead in an extravaganza in the nature that Buffalo Bill used to put on.
But personally, Will Rogers was incredibly talented with the rope, a lariat, and his wonderful, wonderful tricks with the rope, tricks such as these (shows footage) made him famous throughout the country. Even these tricks weren’t enough however. It wasn’t until Will started talking…talking as he twirled his rope, joking informally in his soft, Southwestern drawl that he won his greatest audiences, attracted the great Flo Ziegfeld, and became a star of the Follies. As Will himself said, with some characteristic exaggeration of course …
ROGERS: “If there were no Ziegfeld and no follies I would today have been twelve miles north of (???) Oklahoma plowin’ for corn, slappin’ the hogs, runnin’ my own steer, and knocking the Republican Party. That is considered one of the chores in my country. I used to whine a song called ‘Casey Jones’ in one hand and I used to spin the rope in the other….and then whine…with the other…and I used to tell jokes about the Senate of the United States. If I needed any new jokes for that night, I just used to get the late afternoon papers and read what Congress had done that day and the audience used to die laughing. I wasn’t old enough then to know what they was laughing at, but now that I’m a tax payer I know exactly what they was laughing at then.”
HEFFNER: Of course, Will became best known in Hollywood. Here he tries to get a passport:(footage):
VOICE: And how are we to know of your birth?
ROGERS: …You doubt I was born! ‘Course in our country if you walk up and appeared before anybody…we take it as fairly partially true that you must have been born! We’re just kind of trustin’ that way.
VOICE: But it seems strange that you have no official record.
ROGERS: Well, strange…old timers…by the time we went to town to get a birth certificate, you had another child!
VOICE: But you are an American citizen.
ROGERS: Well…I think I am. Both Mother and Father had Cherokee in the blood…born and raised in Indian Territory. ‘Course, I’m not one of these whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, but we met ‘em at the boat when they landed. It’s always been to the everlasting discredit to the Indian race that we ever let ‘em land! Well, it’s the only thing I blame the Indians for…
(end of footage)
HEFFNER: Will wasn’t all business, even show business, however. He was just too warm and genuine a person for that.
Will’s wife Betty was one of the major inspirations of his life. Theirs was a very happy marriage, despite the enormous demands of show business. A magnificent home in California, complete with a playground and a swimming pool was what Will bought for Betty and their three kids, Will Jr., Mary, and James. And possibly Will’s greatest joy was teaching his kids to ride as fearlessly and as well as he could. These fine personal characteristics, together with his showmanship, his wonderfully dry and typically American sense of humor; these were the things that endeared Will Rogers to his countrymen. But Will is our Man of the Year, America, nineteen hundred and thirty- five, even more because of the boost he gave our morale in Depression times too, as in this speech:
VOICE: This is the headline…
ROGERS: There isn’t a product that you can name that we haven’t got more of it than any other country on the face of the earth. And yet we’ve got people starving. We know the distinction of being the only nation in the history of the world that ever went to the poorhouse in an automobile.
(VOICE OF HEFFNER): Will was giving this radio speech to open a national drive for unemployment relief, as America seemed to be at the bottom of the barrel.
ROGERS: I know that this subject is very dear to Mr. Hoover’s heart. I know he’d rather see the problem of unemployment solved then he would see all the other problems before him combined. And if every town, every city will get out and raise their quota of what they need for this winter, why it will make him a very happy man. Happiness has been a steady diet with our president. I thank you. Good night.
(VOICE OF HEFFNER): Depression gave Will a feeling for politics, too. Here he introduces Franklin D. Roosevelt to a 1932 California audience:
ROGERS: Your honor, this wonderful crowd is due to your drawing power. You’re the biggest thing that’s been in this stadium since Babe Didrickson.
ROGERS: We must have some eighty or ninety thousand people here tonight. That’s the most people who ever paid to see a politician.
ROGERS: In this introduction I’ve been very flowery, but remember, you’re only a candidate!
ROGERS: As the President, I’ll do right by you!
(end of footage)
HEFFNER: Whatever his politics, with his magnificent sense of humor, Will’s capacity to say what the little man was thinking in the words that the little man would use, Will Rogers was unquestionably a great man. His figure was quite impressive. His mind was clean and forthright. He was capable, indeed, of understanding and appreciating other human beings. His was a great heritage, symbolized best, perhaps, by his saying, “I never met a man I didn’t like”. Will Rogers, humanitarian, humorist, philosopher, all around Man of the Year.
But now let’s go over and discuss Will Rogers with two of America’s most famous humorists of our own time. We’re honored to have with us today two gentlemen well known to you all, the Allen Brothers: Steve Allen and Fred Allen.
FRED ALLEN: Two morticians!
HEFFNER: Gentlemen, I can’t think of two people with whom to discuss the great humorist of yesteryear. I wondered one point as I thought of coming over and talking about Will Rogers with you two…
STEVE ALLEN: I thought you were going by, I didn’t think you were going to stop here. We’ve been here all afternoon waiting for you.
HEFFNER: Did it really seem that long?
FRED ALLEN: No, it didn’t, but we came here just on speculation.
HEFFNER: Well, speculation: Do think that Will Rogers would have made as much as an impression on the American people today as he did back in, well, in the twenties and thirties?
FRED ALLEN: Well, I think so. I think that any time in which Will had lived would be a time for him to have dominated in the humorist fashion.
HEFFNER: You think even today with the…
FRED ALLEN: …well, he was highly competitive and he had more competition, I mean, with all the free entertainment you have in television, and you did have in radio and Will was…as Steve knows, as Steve said a little while ago…I don’t want to take your mind off…
STEVE ALLEN: (laughter)
FRED ALLEN: …that people depended more on the newspaper for entertainment and for information years ago in the years that Will was writing, than they do today…because they have the television and they have the news on the half hour. They have bad news before it happens half the time. Bad news and commercial, I mean, that’s the thing of the day.
STEVE ALLEN: (laughter)
HEFFNER: Do you think that…your emphasis is upon his writing rather than upon the Ziegfeld Follies…
FRED ALLEN: Well, his acting, that was another facet. I mean, it was the same thing. If he wrote and you could read you could enjoy Will. If you couldn’t read and you could hear you could enjoy Will.
STEVE ALLEN: Basically it was his humor, I think. The other things were extra, the rope tricks and the gum chewing.
FRED ALLEN: Well, that was the start of it. He started as an entertainer, actually, and then became a humorist in the development of his work through the years. And when he started writing, of course, his scope was increased, which enabled him to reach a different group of people than who would normally see him at the theaters.
HEFFNER: Well, is humor usually incidental to some other trait or ability?
STEVE ALLEN: I guess most of the humorists start out doing something else. You were a juggler weren’t you? (To Fred Allen)
FRED ALLEN: I started as a juggler, yes. Because I liked to carry things when I became a humorist because then you could defend yourself. I had three or four iron balls and cue sticks and things if there was any trouble, when my humor got underway.
HEFFNER: …I should have brought something for you to juggle…
FRED ALLEN: Well, no, we won’t turn back. I’m going ahead, over the hill, not going back.
HEFFNER: Well, what about this thing with the roots of Rogers’ humor. What do you think was most appealing? I think it’s kind of hard for people today, young people particularly, to think of a humorist. You forgive me, but a humorist is a great national hero, and Will Rogers was.
STEVE ALLEN: I don’t want to forgive you for that. I want to thank you for that!
FRED ALLEN: We hope you’re right! Well, I think in Will’s day you had to make more of an effort to reach the mass audience. Today you don’t. If you’re successful in television in the humor field, you’re exposed to millions of people instantaneously all over the country. Will didn’t have that opportunity until he went into pictures. In the early phases of his career he pleased people in the theaters, he pleased them in his writing of books, and in newspapers.
STEVE ALLEN: I’m just going to add to that, Fred, that I think that a great important factor in the appreciation of Will’s humor the obvious one, of his personality. I think it’s almost impossible to appreciate his humor fully unless you relate it to his personality. If you get an eighteen year old today and show him some of the things Will wrote and don’t tell him who wrote them, he might not (and I don’t mean this in any demeaning sense) but he might not be quite as impressed as he would be if he could have been alive during Will’s time and heard these gems come out of Will’s mouth.
FRED ALLEN: I think each generation makes its own humorists and the humor that it accepts, and Will came of his time, and I think that nobody ever resented Will. Everybody enjoyed his humor because he seemed to speak for the little man, the man with no collar on him, the ungrammatical man. Will was not an ungrammatical man himself, but he spoke in words that would be used by people who were untutored and ungrammatical and unsung. And consequently anyone could understand his humor. He rarely used flowery language and he never got into fields that the little person couldn’t understand what he was getting at.
HEFFNER: What about the pressures on a humorist? You were talking about the different…
FRED ALLEN: …he’s on every day…
HEFFNER: Every night!
FRED ALLEN: Well, today he turns tonight into day…but it’s true today. Steve probably tells more jokes in three weeks than Will would tell in an entire year of his writing and it requires more material. And everybody said years ago that radio would kill all the comedians. It helped to kill some of them artistically if it didn’t do away with them physically. But nobody ever dreamed that when Will was functioning that a fellow like Steve could go and talk for almost 2 hours every night and entertain millions of people.
HEFFNER: What about those pressures?
STEVE ALLEN: Well, they are almost sometimes, seemingly insurmountable. To get back to Will and to relate him to this particular point, I think Will would have been a giant today, just as he was in his own day…
FRED ALLEN: Oh, yes…
STEVE ALLEN: …but he would have had to employ a great deal many more secretaries to answer the complaints that would have arrived in his fan mail basket. The joke that we saw him do a moment ago to Franklin Roosevelt, “Remember, you’re only a candidate”…a wonderful joke, I burst out here laughing as I watched him…but if any one of us happened to say that today to (???) or Nixon at a rally in Madison Square Garden the laugh wouldn’t be nearly that big, and if we said it on television we’d get about four thousand letters saying we were whippersnaps of one sort or another.
FRED ALLEN: That’s true. You’re lucky to get out of the studio in time without having the people arrive when the voice of yours, when the sound of your voice had died down. I think that the people today in the humor field…their limits are much great than Will’s were, because Will could talk about anything politically, or any phase of life in our country and people accepted it in the humor in which he delivered it. But today we have a great many pressure groups and a great many self-appointed people who are ready to criticize without being ready to help, you know.
STEVE ALLEN: These are very touchy times. In one area, I noticed that Will chewed gum through many of his monologues. Fred was just pointing out a moment ago that it was a good device for a comedian because while you’re waiting for a laugh you can chew or scratch your head or something…
FRED ALLEN: That’s right.
STEVE ALLEN: …but I had occasion just one night…in all the years I’ve been on television I chewed gum through an entire program. Not by design. I just happened to have some in my mouth and didn’t throw it away until one hour later. I literally got eighteen postcards, very vindictive postcards, people who had always enjoyed my program up to that time, didn’t take exception even that night to anything I said, who were very bitter about the fact that I had chewed gum. They thought it was in dreadful taste.
HEFFNER: Will would get away with this throughout his whole career!
FRED ALLEN: People aren’t as critical…people were…you didn’t have all of the free entertainment available for the people of Will’s day. And people accepted things and were grateful for them. But today people are surfeited with entertainment and everyone’s a critic. Little children today criticize the commercials. I know during the summertime, I have a niece, and looking at Phil Rizzuto every day, a shortstop, she was a little upset about that. She thought they should put some new people in there. Like the commercials. They get a little tired of seeing the same things.
STEVE ALLEN: You might as well say familiarity breeds contempt and get it over with.
FRED ALLEN: Ah, yes, and I think it works out, too.
HEFFNER: It hasn’t worked out in all cases. It certainly hasn’t worked out in cases of many of you gentlemen who are seeing a great deal in the public…
FRED ALLEN: I’ve seen it on the street a lot. I’ve become a man of the street.
STEVE ALLEN: Well, they’ll accept this, because there aren’t enough people to fill all the jobs.
FRED ALLEN: Up to a point they do. I think your life is much shorter. Years ago many comedians survived, Eddie (???) and Raymond Hitchcock and the men who were active in the theater and the forms of entertainment that we had…they lived long lives and were in harness when they died, working like horses on some occasions. But at least they didn’t wear their popularity out because they just went from town to town. Where the audiences saw them in Detroit, Cleveland…every few years they went back with a fresh show, so they were always welcome in these communities. But today a boy…a fellow like…I was going to say a boy…my eyes are playing tricks…but a pupil in my eye had something juvenile in mind…but I think a fellow like Steve today does a wonderful job just holding an audience over a period of months. You’re in the second or third year now, aren’t you?
STEVE ALLEN: Uh huh.
FRED ALLEN: Imagine that. And no one, well, nobody ever did years ago, attempt…well, there weren’t any jobs like that available to cope with them. But if you told Ed Wynn 25 years ago that you had a job for him five nights a week, just show up with an hour and forty-five minutes of material, he’d have you examined physically or mentally or something.
STEVE ALLEN: Part of the reason for that two…part of the reason a lot of us do a lot of work and keep working, is that we do very little. If you pay close attention, people who do less on television last the longest, Ed Sullivan, for example. I’m an admirer of Ed’s, I don’t mean this as a criticism, just an observation. He doesn’t really do anything except say “Here they come”.
FRED ALLEN: He has an adhesive quality. He sticks the whole show together. And if you’re a sticky comedian you can survive today.
STEVE ALLEN: That’s right. I think it was Fred was the one who said that it’s a great page for pointers, for people who point at the next act.
FRED ALLEN: That’s right. You could get a dog to emcee…
STEVE ALLEN: (laughter)
FRED ALLEN: You could get Lassie and rub meat on the actors and the dog will go like that (points)…a silent emcee.
STEVE ALLEN: I think that…I’m serious about what…a common point. I think that those of us who don’t do much…I mention Ed…Arthur Godfrey, Dick Irwin, myself…we…
FRED ALLEN: You dominate the surroundings and the very fact that you’re not pressuring people, your life is extended in the medium. Because the ones who work harder and noisier, a fellow like Will…I would think today would be wonderful as a daily commentator. I’m sure, because he would adjust himself to the problems of the day and the media in which you can survive, by the way, a comedian can survive, and I think he’d have done very well. I think he’d be very popular. I don’t think that there’s anyone who’s replaced him up to now.
STEVE ALLEN: I guess no one ever will, actually.
FRED ALLEN: Well, I know some years ago when Will died, they asked me the day…I was being made up in the make-up department at 20th Century Fox, and he was on that lot. And the word came in over the radio while I was in the make-up room at about seven o’clock in the morning that Will had died. And that afternoon an agent came…of course agents have no compunction about doing anything…an agent came and asked me if I would attempt to take his syndication. They wanted to salvage his syndication, which was great in those days. And I thought it was an insult, because anyone…the place that Will had in the lives and the hearts of the people…anyone who had the audacity to show up in his place the following day would be ostracized, I thought.
HEFFNER: Let me ask you this question. I…that doesn’t follow up with what you’ve been talking about because one shouldn’t…
FRED ALLEN: That’s redundant, I mean…
HEFFNER: Ah, you…
FRED ALLEN: …a commercial copy, but…redundancy, but…
HEFFNER: I think that the books you gentlemen have written Treadmill to Oblivion and Fourteen for Tonight…Treadmill to Oblivion by Fred Allen, Fourteen for Tonight by Steve Allen…
FRED ALLEN: I think that that’s the book that’s important, and now my books been out for about a year, so I think that the people who are going to look at it or buy it or be interested in it, they’ve all been supplied with the copies. But I think that Steve’s book, being a new book…and I haven’t seen it reviewed. Has it come out actually?
STEVE ALLEN: Yes.
FRED ALLEN: Has it?
STEVE ALLEN: Just a few days ago.
HEFFNER: Let me ask this question about writing. Do you think the humorist Will Rogers, (Fred Allen, Steve Allen, shows are best in his writing, gum chewing, lassoing, or what? Where is the humorist…
STEVE ALLEN: I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rule, do you Fred?
FRED ALLEN: I don’t think so. One person can write and another person can talk. If you’re fortunate enough in radio…I almost abandoned acting to start writing, because in self defense, I had to do that if I was going to survive. I did a lot of my own writing at that time in radio, and I found that I couldn’t depend on writers wholly, so that I had to get into it almost entirely.
HEFFNER: Well, Will Rogers was in a sense, in his writing, following in the footsteps of quite an American tradition…
FRED ALLEN: Finley Peter Dunn and Will Rogers were the only two men…a syndicate man told me that…the only two men at fifty years writing in newspapers, writing a humor column…those were the only two men who acquired a vast audience in the, among the newspaper readers. One was Will Rogers, and the other was Finley Peter Dunn. Mr. Dooley papers…they were very popular around the turn of the century in 1910 or so…
HEFFNER: That same folksy, homespun…
FRED ALLEN: Yes, and discussing political things and life as it was being…people were trying to live it in those days.
STEVE ALLEN: I think one interesting thing about Will’s humor is that because…the reason so much of it was timely and pertinent to events of the day…it has not kept, so to speak, as well as some of the more timeless humorists, whoever they might be. It was funnier for its day. I think that’s often true of a timely joke. It’s funnier…but reading it 10 or 20 years later, sometimes you don’t even know what’s funny about it at all, because you have no interest in the matters that it concerns.
FRED ALLEN: Well, it’s the same with Ademus Ward, the writer, the humorist of that era, because misspelling was a great part of the humor of those days and dialect. The Dooley Papers are all in Irish dialect and yet you can read them today, fifty years later, and they’re very funny, even though you don’t know…things are funnier, I would think, than Will’s things, because Will’s were of the moment, you know. Dunn’s things were written about conditions in the political situation in the White House and President Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, and they are very funny if you’ve ever looked through them.
STEVE ALLEN: Um hmm.
HEFFNER: Well, Will certainly took his shots at presidents and senators and government.
FRED ALLEN: Well, when they died and the people who knew them died, the humor, the major part of it died, because the people today aren’t interested in events of thirty years ago, twenty years ago.
HEFFNER: I’m afraid our time is up now, gentlemen, but thanks very much for coming and joining with me in our discussion of Will Rogers, Man of the Year, 1935.
FRED ALLEN: Thank you.
Next week, we’ll come back again to the 1930s, when our “Man of the Year” will be another wonderfully colorful American, Fiorello LaGuardia, New York’s “Little Flower”. Our guest will be Newbold Morris and Ernest Securio (?), two of LaGuardia’s closest friends and associates. See you then.
VOICE: You have just seen “Man of the Year”. Your host was Richard D. Heffner. Our thanks to the Will Rogers Memorial Commission in Claremore, Oklahoma, for generously supplying film for this program. “Man of the Year” is brought to you each week by WRCA-TV in cooperation with the Saturday Review on your newsstands now. Your announcer is Lionel Rico. This has been a Kinescope recording.