How Did Will Rogers First Become Famous?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to vaudeville and whether they are true or false.

VAUDEVILLE URBAN LEGEND: Will Rogers first made a name for himself in the New York scene by heroically roping a steer that had gone into the crowd during a Western performance at Madison Square Garden.

As I have noted in other legends (like this one involving Buster Keaton), the great entertainers often stretched the truth when it meant good publicity for them.

That’s only natural, right?

Well, in the case of Will Rogers, his big New York debut involved a dramatic story that, as unlikely as it sounds, apparently IS true – or, well, true enough, I guess.

Will Rogers began his career working on ranches and then later as a trick cowboy in a number of circuses, mostly overseas (South Africa and Australia).

In the early 1900s, he moved back to America and tried to take his act to New York and the great vaudeville scene there.

Here’s a picture of Will from those days…

Will got a gig performing in Colonel Mulhall’s Wild West Show, which also featured Tom Mix…

and Mulhall’s daughter, Lucille Mulhall…

The show made its way into the world famous Madison Square Garden in New York City in April of 1905. Rogers was making $20 a week in the show doing trick roping.

Well, during the show, things changed dramatically, when a steer broke loose from the show and actually charged the audience!

The exact details are not known for sure, but what IS known is that Will Rogers quickly roped the steer and helped save the lives of the people in the audience.

So when the papers the next day extolled the heroism of Will Rogers, thereby making him a household name (he would very soon be hired to his own vaudeville show, which would then, naturally, launch him into the national celebrity he would become in film and in print), they were correct.

The only question is how MUCH of an impact did Will have?

There were tons of cowboys on hand, and different reports in the papers report different versions of the story – in some, Will is the most notable hero – in others, Tom Mix and cowboy Jim Minnick were given most of the credit.

So, like I said before, just because something works as publicity does not mean that it did not actually happen!

The legend is…

STATUS: True Enough for a True

Thanks to Ray Robinson’s American Original: A Life of Will Rogers for the information!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is

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One Response to “How Did Will Rogers First Become Famous?”

  1. will rogers was an amazing man nothing could own up to him!

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