Several famous performers appeared in the many theaters dotting Memphis’s landscape. In the 19th century, opera singer Jenny Lind and noted actor Edwin Booth (whose brother John Wilkes murdered President Abraham Lincoln) played in Memphis while such celebrated vaudevillians as Jack Benny, Milton Berle and the Marx Brothers performed in the Bluff City during the 20th century.
One of the most famous entertainers to visit Memphis was the “cowboy philosopher” Will Rogers, who delighted audiences with his sophisticated rope tricks and trenchant observations of the national scene.
Rogers first arrived in Memphis in 1908 where he performed during the summer months at East End, an amusement park located near Overton Square.
A. B. Morrison, assistant manager of the Warner Brothers Theater, stated, “I remember talking with him on the back porch of the old East End Theater after his act. He was full of stories of his exploits in the West and he told them with a relish and wonder of a boy. He was a favorite in Memphis years before he crashed the big time on Broadway.”
A few months later, in January 1909, “the expert Oklahoma cowboy roper” played the Orpheum. He repeated this schedule -- East End in the Summer and the Orpheum in the winter -- for several years until he left the vaudeville circuit.
In 1925 a trio of Memphis musicians, Angelo, Jack and Joe Cortese were hired to manage Rogers’ tour of the South. He appeared in the Bluff City on Nov. 6, 1925, at the Auditorium, where, according to The Commercial Appeal, Rogers “poked fun at everything and everybody. He even told the mayor how to build the viaduct and he warned the world to stay away from Memphis lest the world be murdered.”
Returning the following year, Rogers employed his dry wit in commenting on the dire condition of cotton farmers in the South.
“My plan would be to bring back the boll weevil. Then I would encourage the Texas flea. My second plan would be to increase the demand. I would manufacture little cotton wads for members of and attendants of the thousands of luncheon clubs to stick in their ears so they could not hear those after-dinner guys talk about something they don’t know anything about.”
The humorist continued to appear in the Bluff City every fall through 1928, but his performances were not his only connection to Memphis.
The Cortese Brothers remained his close friends and Rogers’ aunt by marriage, Theda Blake, lived in Memphis.
Angelo remembered that the “moment he hit Memphis, he would start out strolling about the town and talking to people.”
On one visit, he wandered into municipal court where Judge Clifford Davis was presiding. When Davis realized who the stranger was he exclaimed, “Unless I’m badly mistaken, we are honored today by a visit from Will Rogers.”
The humorist smiled broadly and winked at the judge, who carried on with the trial. The two met several more times, including after Davis became the city’s commissioner of police. On his last brief stopover in Memphis, Rogers asked about “this police commissioner feller -- what’s his name? Jeff Davis? Oh, Cliff Davis, sure I remember.”
In August 1935 Will Rogers joined famed pilot Wiley Post in a survey of air routes between America and Russia. While over Alaska the plane crashed, killing Rogers and Post.
Mourned throughout Memphis, the humorist’s aunt Theda remarked, “I wasn’t pleased when I read so much in the papers about this airplane trip. I seemed to have a premonition something would go wrong.”
G. Wayne Dowdy is senior manager of the History Department, Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library,