Mark Simonson

Most of us can easily name a celebrity, musician or dignitary who have come to Oneonta in our lifetimes, and left a lasting impression on large and small gatherings. Many have visited the State University College at Oneonta, Hartwick College or the Oneonta Theatre.

At the time of that famous person’s passing, many a conversation will begin with, “I remember him or her when they came to Oneonta,” and the stories follow.

One such recollection came in August 1935 upon hearing the news that American humorist, actor and author Will Rogers had died in a plane crash on Friday, Aug. 16. Rogers had appeared in Oneonta in May 1927.

In a recollection in The Oneonta Star of Aug. 17, 1935, Charles E. Choate, then Oneonta’s fire chief, said, “He was one of the finest men I ever knew.” Choate was at the Oneonta Theatre the night of Rogers’ appearance, sponsored by the Oneonta American Legion, Post 259.

Choate said he was introduced to the humorist and talked with him awhile before the show. “When it was time for Rogers to go on,” Choate said, “he carried a chair to the wing of the theatre and told me to sit there where I could hear good.

“After the show, he talked about fire departments in various cities where he had been. He mentioned numerous big fires he had witnessed and said that a good many fire chiefs throughout the country were very dear friends of his. Before he left he stated that he hoped he had made another in the city of Oneonta.”

As for Harold Carey, the chief operator of the Oneonta Theatre when Rogers performed, “The news of Rogers’ death hit me like a blow. I never knew a finer man than he. I met with him in the lobby of the theatre and took a liking to him from the moment I first shook his hand.”

At the time of his death, Will Rogers starred in his latest movie, “Steam Boat Round the Bend.” It arrived in Oneonta in late August 1935. The Carr Clothing Co., then at 175 Main St., advertised in the Star that it had arranged for a supply of autographed photos of Will Rogers, to promote the new film. The ad advised fans to come early to the store, as the supply would not last long.

As for Will Rogers’ visit to Oneonta in May 1927, the Star reported on May 16 that the humorist arrived at the D&H Railway station at 6:30 p.m. and was met by members of the American Legion and Mayor Bertus C. Lauren.

The show began at 8:15 p.m., and the Company G Band provided music as the audience began taking their seats.

“To tell what he talked about or to reproduce the fanciful humor of his utterances would be manifestly impossible,” the Star said. Some of the humor was timely to current events of the 1920s. Other topics were timeless, such as making fun of Congress or the president of the United States.

Rogers described President Calvin Coolidge “as a man hard to blast out of the chair,” or the Congress “which makes jokes and calls them laws, and laws and they are jokes.” He spoke on cricket and baseball, as well as bootlegging, as this was during the era of Prohibition. Rogers spoke of his personal experience as mayor of Beverly Hills and of artists in Hollywood. Likely politically incorrect by today’s standards he told several Scotch, Irish and Italian jokes.

“This was at the end of perhaps his first five miles on the stage,” according to the Star. “Then Mr. Rogers gave demonstration of his facility with the lariat, keeping a running fire of anecdote going all the while; and when winded he sat down in front of the footlights, took the audience into confidence and started talking about swimming the English channel, philosophy of married life, the stronger sex, Vodka … and other things which kept everybody not merely smiling but laughing.”

Oneontans got their money’s worth as Rogers was on stage for 2½ hours.

Rogers departed the next morning to speak in the evening in Brattleboro, Vt.

On Monday: Time to “Just Say No.”

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/opinion/columns/.

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