Following a successful national tour, James Whitmore brought Paul Shyre’s one-man, two-hour play about the great Oklahoma cowboy-satirist Will Rogers to Broadway. There, lariat in hand, Stetson on his head, and chaps on his thighs, he impersonated Rogers in an evening based entirely on the man’s own words.
Chewing gum as he talked, and doing a couple of Rogers’s lariat tricks, Whitmore made the sagebrush philosopher’s quips and comments (mostly about politics) as lively and meaningful in 1974 as when originally uttered. The material had been carefully culled from Rogers’s writing so that it barely seemed dated, despite references to Calvin Coolidge, John D. Rockefeller, the Ziegfeld Follies, Charles Russell, FDR, and so on. Most of the program derived from the Rogers of the mid-1930s, shortly before his tragic death at 55 in an Alaska plane crash with Wylie Post.
A book-lined set with three acting areas formed the background, with Whitman first appearing as himself to talk briefly about Rogers before changing into the folksy raconteur in front of the audience by adopting his clothing and manner. The impersonation, said Martin Gottfried, was “altogether convincing.” Few were anything but well-disposed toward the show, but John Simon was upset by “such paltry, jejune fare,” smacking of necrophilia.
Whitmore, a versatile film and stage star, who also did one-man shows about Harry Truman and Teddy Roosevelt, began doing this show in 1970 at the Loretto-Hilton Theater in Webster Groves, Missouri, and continued, between other projects, for 30 years, retiring it in 2000. A TV adaptation was produced in 1972.
Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.
Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here.
Next up: Wings.