An earlier article detailed Broadway entertainer his purchase of property on Clocks Boulevard in East Massapequa and construction of a mansion, two log cabins, a stable and a polo field. He was a very popular figure in theater circles and cheerfully invited many well-known entertainers to visit and enjoy their time "way out east," including Will Rogers.
This column will explore Rogers' connection to the area.
The Massapequas prior to 1920 were still sparsely settled. The mansions of Floyd-Jones family members still dominated the landscape along Merrick Road, most of the streets were dirt paths and there were very few cars. Two attempts were made to settle the area before World War I: Queens Land and Title Company purchased property north of Sunrise Highway between Broadway and Hicksville Road and advertised construction of a "new city in the suburbs." Several other houses were built around the Woodcastle Hotel and the Schaefer Homestead, both located east of Park Boulevard on Front Street, a heavily German area that became the heart of Massapequa Park.
The overall area remained in fact scantily developed for many years, and was especially attractive to Rogers, born and raised in Oklahoma and well on his way to being a major figure in the entertainment world. For a man whose family was growing and who wanted to get away from constant travel on the vaudeville circuit so he could spend as much time as possible with his wife and three children, it provided a comfortable milieu for him and a chance to expand his circle of friends and deepen his friendships.
Rogers was born in 1879 in Oklahoma Territory. Both parents were part-Cherokee and he was always conscious of how badly the United States had treated his ancestors. He became attracted to the stage as a young man and used his considerable skill with a lariat to carve a name for himself before World War I by appearing in rodeos and vaudeville productions, relying mainly on his rope twirling talent, but adding his humorous and gently barbed insights into human life.
Rogers was often employed as a fill-in act while more lavish acts were being prepared behind the scenes. In 1911 he met Fred Stone, by then a popular stage actor who was looking for somebody to teach him roping tricks. Stone came to like Rogers and invited him to visit Chin Chin Ranch, which he had completed in 1913, in what was then called Amityville. Rogers was so taken by the area that he soon rented a house directly across from Stone's and kept it as his primary residence for several years.
During the course of one conversation, during which Rogers complained about his extensive traveling, Stone encouraged him to look for steady work in the New York theater circuit, which was considered more respectable than vaudeville and paid better. He thought Rogers should present himself as an individual performer, instead of as part of an ensemble. Rogers took his advice and in 1915 landed a small role in the hugely famous Ziegfeld Follies. Although Florenz Ziegfeld did not appreciate Rogers' dry, self-deprecating humor, he recognized his popularity and expanded his role.
Around that time, Rogers suffered an injury that defined his career and truly made him a star. One morning he decided to go swimming off Stone’s back porch and dove head first into Narraskatuck Creek. Unfortunately, the tide was low at the time and Rogers landed on his right shoulder, paralyzing his right arm. He recovered slowly and was told by doctors that he would probably never regain full use of his arm, a serious blow for a rope twirler.
Rogers was determined to prove his doctors wrong and exercised diligently for several months. At the same time, he continued to appear in New York theater productions, but came to rely more on his commentary about current events and his musings on life in general to entertain audiences. This approach, which was unusual among contemporary comedians because of its apparent spontaneity and its gentle criticisms, was so well received that his career took off and he was soon recognized as one of a handful of top entertainers, both in the United States and overseas.
As his fame and fortune grew, Rogers continued to live in East Massapequa. On day in 1918 he became involved in another conversation that changed his life, again for the better. He was dining in Fred Stone's house with Rex Beach, a well-known novelist, and his wife, who was Stone's sister-in-law. She told Rogers he should look into the new form of entertainment known as motion pictures. Several wealthy entrepreneurs were moving to the Los Angeles area, specifically to Hollywood, and were starting studios to produce movies. Samuel Goldwyn, in fact, had hired Beach to write scripts that he could use for his films.
Rogers was skeptical, especially because he didn't want to be separated from his family and didn't want to leave his home and the New York theater business, but he agreed to give it a try. He ended up making 15 films for Goldwyn and decided in the early 20s to move his family to California, feeling it would be a better place for the children to live. Because of several disagreements with Goldwyn, he moved back and forth between New York and California, appearing in several Broadway shows as well as in movies for producer Hal Roach. By then he had severed his ties with the Massapequas, but his close friendship with Fred Stone had indeed focused and defined what became an enormously successful career. It is no exaggeration to say his experiences in this area were critical ones.
The home Will Rogers rented on Clocks Boulevard was built in 1888. It still stands, as does the mansion Fred Stone built in 1913, overlooking Narraskatuck Creek. Chin Chin Ranch, with its stables, polo field and log cabins are long gone, covered over by houses built in the construction frenzy that overtook the area after World War II.
Will Rogers died suddenly and tragically in 1935, killed in a plane crash in Alaska as he and famed aviator Wiley Post attempted to chart a mail and passenger air route between the United States and Russia. His death was given front-page status in many American newspapers for several weeks, but his impact dimmed quickly as the world confronted political leaders whose attitudes were far removed from the kinder and gentler America that Rogers portrayed.
Quotes and Sources
Will Rogers was and still is eminently quotable. Among his more famous aphorisms are "I never met a man I didn't like" and "I only know what I read in the papers." Among the more pointed barbs are "Once a man holds public office he is no good for honest work" and "My epitaph: Here lies Will Rogers. Politicians turned honest and he starved to death." For additional reading, there are two fine biographies, filled with many more quotes:
Will Rogers. A Biography by Ben Yagoda and American Original. A Life of Will Rogers by Ray Robinson.