To people on the West Coast he was the famous stage performer, the movie star, the Hollywood figure adored for his humor and wit.
But before his rise to fame, Will Rogers was a small-town kid from Oklahoma, a trained cowboy, a man at peace with a slower pace of life.
“He was such a public figure, but he was a really bashful, shy kind of guy,” Barbara Hodgson said. “This person he put forward was an alter ego.”
Hodgson, a tour guide at the ranch at Will Rogers State Historic Park in the Pacific Palisades area of the Santa Monica Mountains, was among a group of docents who recently traveled to Rogers’ home state to learn about his pre-celebrity roots.
The docents came away with new perspectives on a man whose legacy lives on through the local park, which his wife gifted to the state in 1944.
The docents’ trip to Oklahoma was the second act of an informal exchange program. Back in September, a docent group from the Will Rogers Memorial Museum visited the Southern California ranch. Will’s Ropers, as they’re known, took a tour and mingled with local guides.
“They kept saying, ‘You’ve got to come and see us,’” Hodgson said. “And none of us had been back there. That spurred the excitement of seeing the other side of Will Rogers, his birthplace, where he grew up and the type of wonderful Oklahoma people who were part of his birthright.”
Hodgson and nine other local docents left April 15 for Oklahoma, spending a day at the Rogers museum in Claremore. They met Doris “Coke” Lane Meyer, a 96-year-old grandniece of the late humorist, who signed a copy of her book, “I Called Him Uncle.”
“It was like chills being able to sit next to her,” Hodgson said. “That was a thrill to be able to connect with her. It was like you were connecting with a living legend.”
The local docents saw remnants from the plane that was carrying Rogers on his last day alive, including his suit, glasses, shoes, books and typewriter. The small plane crashed in an Alaska lagoon in 1935, killing Rogers and aviator Wiley Post.
“It was quite a reality check,” Hodgson said. “It really brought it home to us.”
Hodgson and the other local docents delved into Rogers’ background, visiting his birthplace in Oologah. The celebrity was proud of his partial Cherokee heritage, although he likely downplayed it so he wasn’t subject to discriminatory laws. And he didn’t do well in school, Hodgson said, asking his sisters for money so he could leave for Texas to work on a ranch.
“He was a star, but that’s the only Will Rogers we knew,” Hodgson said. “For us to go back and see where he came from was mind-expanding.
“We will have a larger story to tell. It’s not just about the ranch, but about his life. … Now we have the missing piece. We can talk about him in a real way.”
In addition to the Pacific Palisades ranch, the local state park features a visitor center as well as hiking trails, equestrian activities and other recreational opportunities.
Free tours of the ranch house are offered hourly from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday and Fridays and hourly from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. Parking costs $12.
Will Rogers State Historic Park is located at 1501 Will Rogers State Park Road, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272.
Visit www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=626 for more information about the park and its amenities.
For more information about becoming a docent at the Will Rogers ranch, email email@example.com or call (310) 454-8212 ext. 100.