will rogers -- 7/31/20

Today's selection -- from Will Rogers in Hollywood by Bryan B. Sterling, et al. In 1918, the biggest star in Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies, and therefore the biggest star in all of New York City, was a homespun, wise-cracking Oklahoman named Will Rogers. But Rogers was destined to leave New York and become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood:

"During the week of August 11, 1918, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., released a stern warning through the New York City newspapers. The producer of the incomparable Follies declared that he had exclusive contractual control of the professional services of every single member of the Follies cast, and that if any member attempted to appear in one of those new motion pictures without his permission, he, Ziegfeld, would obtain an injunction against the producer of any picture involved and would initiate a lawsuit for damages against any theater exhibiting such a film.

"Unperturbed, Will Rogers continued to commute early each morning to the studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, to complete filming his first motion picture, Laughing Bill Hyde. Sam Goldfish, the producer and president of Goldwyn Pictures Corporation (he would later change his name), also paid little heed to Ziegfeld's challenge.

Rogers in 1922

"The Ziegfeld Follies of 1918, starring Will Rogers, Marilyn Miller, Eddie Cantor, W. C. Fields, Ann Pennington, and Gus Minton, had opened on June 18. It was generally agreed that in the three years since Will Rogers had first appeared in a Ziegfeld production -- the Midnight Frolic at the New Amsterdam Theatre Roof -- he had become the single most important performer contributing to the success of the shows. And while it is true that Will was, as Billie Burke (Mrs. Florenz Ziegfeld) was to say, 'Ziegfeld's greatest star,' he never missed a performance, whether evening or matinee, during the entire filming. And as for 'contractual control,' all that existed between Ziegfeld and Rogers was a handshake.

"At the very beginning of their business relationship, Ziegfeld had called in a secretary to draw up a contract. Rogers had looked at him. 'A contract?' he had drawled. 'We don't need a contract. You can trust me, and I know I can trust you.' Ziegfeld, wary of such unorthodoxy, had asked Charles Dillingham, the famous producer, who happened to be in the office, to hear the simple agreement and to witness the handshake.

"Why then had Ziegfeld bothered to issue the threat of retribution when he knew that he had no written contract with Will Rogers? The budding film industry had begun to lure away a number of important Broadway performers, and Ziegfeld believed that a warning in time might deter others from leaving the Follies in search of a film career. Perhaps, he thought, it was necessary to remind Will Rogers that no matter how successful his first film might be, there was still the matter of the 1918 Follies to be considered. If Ziegfeld thought for a moment that Will Rogers would forget his obligation -- whether verbal or written -- he did not know this man. No written contract could be more binding on Will than his word. He fully intended to live up to the spirit of his understanding with 'Mr. Ziegfield.' He stayed with the show through its full New York City run and then went along on the Follies' annual tour of major American cities. And when the show finally closed in the spring of 1919, Will volunteered to appear for a few more weeks in Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic, until it was time for him to leave for California. Will was now committed to a change in his career. For the first time in thirteen years he was to leave the stage, where he had been simply himself. Now he would explore further the strange world of acting in moving pictures.

"Because Laughing Bill Hyde had received popular and critical acclaim, Goldfish had offered Rogers a contract. He did not want to lose him to another studio, even though films could not yet take advantage of Will's greatest asset, his voice. There was only one major demand in the contract: Will would have to work at the studio in California.

"As in all such matters, Will had discussed the Goldfish offer with his wife, Betty. There were many questions to be considered. Should they uproot their lives for the sake of an experiment that might not work out? Should Will give up the security of starring in Ziegfeld's Follies? Should they move three thousand miles, when Will could be the star of a new musical Ziegfeld had offered to produce for him?

"Now that the Rogers family had grown to three sons and one daughter the healthful climate and the wide open spaces of California were quite a lure. The huge salary, too, was tempting. Will and Betty decided to move westward.

"On September 30, 1918, Will Rogers and Samuel Goldfish signed the contract. Paragraph 7 called for Will to report to the Goldwyn studio in Culver City, California, no later than the sixteenth of June 1919, to begin a one-year period of acting in films, for the sum of $2,250 per week -- fifty-two weeks per year. The company had an option, to be exercised no later than three months before termination, to extend the contract for one additional year, at the new salary of $3,000 per week.

"The years of living in the East would now come to an end. The family made plans. Will would go alone to the 'Celluloid Coast,' as he called it, rent a suitable house, and then Betty, the children, and the horses would follow. It was going to be a major move. An entirely new life-style was about to begin.

"Will Rogers notified Florenz Ziegfeld that he would be closing on Saturday night, May 31, 1919. At a farewell party Ziegfeld presented Will with a gold watch. Engraved was the lesson he had learned: 'To Will Rogers, in appreciation of a great fellow, whose word is his bond.'

"On Monday, June 2, Will Rogers was still in New York City. Having nothing special to do, he arrived at the New Amsterdam Theatre Roof in time to perform a new routine. He had not been scheduled and was received with thunderous applause. Even the usually noisy waiters stopped and listened; way in the back, from the kitchen, the chefs stuck their heads through the open doors and laughed at Will's views on the foibles of statesmen and politicians. It was one of Rogers' greatest impromptu performances. It would be three years before Will Rogers would be back in a Ziegfeld production. But for now he was about to begin yet another career that would eventually make him the number-one box-office attraction."


by Bryan B. Sterling (Author), et al.


Will Rogers in Hollywood


Crown Publishers, Inc.


Copyright 1984


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