“The Ropin’ Fool”: From Farmhand to Vaudeville
Will Rogers’s skill in throwing a lariat (lasso) came with assiduous practice. Almost by chance, he won his first steer-roping contest in Claremore, Oklahoma, on July 4, 1899, when eight of ten contestants failed to show up. Subsequent contests gave Rogers a taste for show business, and in 1902, he joined Texas Jack’s Wild West Show & Circus in South Africa as the “Cherokee Kid.” The popularity of Wild West shows—especially those featuring Native Americans—was fueled by nostalgia for what seemed like a vanishing American way of life during a period of increasing industrialization and urbanization. By the turn of the century, this form of entertainment had become an international phenomenon.
When Rogers returned home in 1900, he was an accomplished showman. “Show business had gotten into my blood,” he said, “and I was ruined for life as far as any actual work was concerned.” Rogers hit his stride in vaudeville, a mix of specialty acts, such as burlesque comedy, song, and dance. that hit its peak as a popular form of American entertainment around 1905. By 1910, he had created a sensational act by mixing roping with witty conversational monologues.
In 1921, Rogers directed and produced his first film, The Ropin’ Fool, in which he also played a man who was determined to rope anything. But the venture was not successful, and he lost $45,000 in savings (about a half million in today’s dollars). Later, Rogers yearned for the artistic freedom of his vaudeville days, explaining, “No branch of entertainment was ever so satisfying to work in. Never was there such independence. It was your act.”