All posts by Liza Ketchum

The Ropin’ Fool, Will Rogers

Will Rogers

Will Rogers (photo: 1936, Clarence Bull, public domain)

Many famous performers of the 20th century—including stars familiar to me when I was growing up—started in vaudeville. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Charlie Chaplin, Ma Rainey, Bert Williams, Mickey Rooney, Jack Benny, and scores of others found early success on the vaudeville stage. I listed some of these luminaries in the Author’s Note of my new novel, The Life Fantastic, but after an email exchange with wise reader Vicki Palmquist, I realized I had omitted a performer with one of the most fascinating journeys: the comedian, “Ropin’ Fool,” columnist, and entertainer, Will Rogers. 

Part Cherokee, Will Rogers grew up on a ranch near the Verdigris River in what was then Oklahoma Territory. He was lifted onto a pony as soon as he could walk, and was soon riding all over the ranch and roping cattle. He was incredibly skilled with lariat tricks, but his constant practicing got him expelled from boarding school. Home on the ranch, he perfected his roping routines and was soon performing in Wild West Shows that were popular at the time, calling himself “The Cherokee Kid.” 

Drawn to vaudeville, Rogers brought Teddy, his cow pony, to New York City. After many rejections, he finally attracted attention when he and Teddy roped a crazed steer running loose in Madison Square Garden. The vaudeville theater impresario, Will Hammerstein, hired Rogers to perform on the roof garden of his Victoria Theater during the dead hours of 6-8 pm. Rogers and Teddy rode the elevator up to the roof and came out onstage together. (The pony wore felt boots so he wouldn’t slip on the stage floor.) Vaudeville revues often included a “dumb [silent] act,” which was Rogers’ role on the playbill. Calling himself “The Ropin’ Fool,” his intricate tricks were wildly popular.

One night, he made a mistake and commented on it, earning a laugh from the audience. Soon, he was making jokes as he roped. As his reputation grew, he was hired to perform with the Ziegfield Follies, the city’s most lavish and spectacular theatrical revue. Ziegfield expected Rogers to perform silently while his actresses (billed as “The Most Beautiful Girls in the World”) changed their costumes. But Rogers began to comment on the news as he twirled his lariat—and the audience loved it. He learned that he couldn’t tell the same joke twice, so he read many editions of the local papers, jotting down jokes to use that night. Since Ziegfield expected Rogers to be a silent entertainer, he was furious—until he watched a show and heard the laughter. He then gave Rogers top billing.

Will Rogers’ motto became, “All I know is what I read in the papers.” Eventually, he turned his onstage commentary into a daily column that was carried in 500 papers, six days a week. He wrote his columns on a portable typewriter, composing on trains, in cars—and even on the single-engine plane that carried him to his death in Alaska. His humorous, down home philosophy appealed to millions of Americans and buoyed them up during the Great Depression. When he died, the country went into a deep mourning that many compared to the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination.

Rogers’ trajectory was amazing. The “Ropin’ Fool” became a stand-up comedian, film star, public speaker, and writer; the most-read columnist in America. He assumed—correctly—that most Americans read the daily newspapers, so they would get his jokes. Many of his commentaries on government and politicians are eerily apt for the present time. And he managed to poke fun without vitriol. Rogers claimed, “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”

Will Rogers Santa Monica California homeWhen my sons were young, we spent a year in southern California. We often drove out to Will Rogers’ ranch—now a state park—to kick a soccer ball around or take a hike. Inside Rogers’ comfortable ranch house, decorated with mementos from his career, we could see the balcony where Rogers stood and threw his lariat, lassoing house guests as they passed through the living room. As our country suffers through a dangerous, partisan era, I’m reading his commentaries with a wistful longing for his gentle, yet pointed humor.

Will Rogers quote

(Full disclosure: I’m lucky to have the perfect resource on my shelf, a biography of Rogers written by my dad, Richard M. Ketchum: Will Rogers: His Life and Times.  American Heritage Press, 1973.)


The Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold

Marvin Jones & Son are a black father-and-son dance team in The Life Fantastic. Marvin is suffering from ill health so his son, Pietro, has to go on stage solo, which means he must invent new dance routines at the last minute. 

A dance team in real life, The Nicholas Brothers appeared on vaudeville stages as suave, accomplished dancers. They were elegant and acrobatic. Many feel that there have never been dancers as good as they were. And still, they had to face racial bigotry as they traveled around the country.

The Nicholas Brothers

(Photograph from the Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox,
and Tilden Foundations)



The Life Fantastic, a vaudeville timeline

Why read this book and discuss vaudeville in your classroom?

In your classroom, you’ll find this interactive, pictorial timeline to be useful for display to enhance your discussions. The Timeline accompanies the PBS American Masters video, Vaudeville (November 1997, directed by Rosemary Garner, Greg Palmer).

Vaudeville, PBS Timeline


The Life Fantastic: Readers’ Theater


Readers’ theater is an ideal way to involve students from middle school through high school with The Life Fantastic.

Maggie Reagan, in Booklist, wrote about The Life Fantastic, “The plot … provides much fodder for discussing race relations and the power of song. The script-style segments that open each part could be useful for engaging students in readers’ theater.”

Here’s a sample of one of those scripts from The Life Fantastic. Based on the book, your students could expand from readers’ theater to a mannequin challenge to short skits in a silent movie or early talkies style.

Download the script for educational use.


The Life Fantastic: Vaudeville on PBS

One of the most complete looks at the vaudeville stage is PBS’ American Masters: Vaudeville. You can watch it in its entirety (two hours) or break it up into segments for your classroom to view. Your students will enjoy doing compare-and-contrast sessions between current entertainment and vaudeville as well as talking about and researching racial diversity, a reflection of the country’s attitudes, prompted by the researched story within The Life Fantastic

You’ll hear from people who have first-hand experience of the vaudeville stage as well as historians who discuss vaudeville’s meaning and importance at a time when America was in the midst of major changes.


The Life Fantastic: What was vaudeville?

B.F. Keith programWith Teresa determined to sing on the vaudeville stage, she was looking for work in what was viewed as a more wholesome environment than the entertainment that had gone before. Vaudeville began in the 1880s and ended in the 1930s with the advent of widely distributed film and radio. The Life Fantastic is set in 1913, so vaudeville was in its heyday. Here’s a short history quoted from Virtual Vaudeville, University of Georgia, sponsored by The National Science Foundation.:

“Vaudeville appealed to a broad cross-spectrum of the public, representing every class and ethnic group. The wealthiest patrons could purchase exclusive box seats or seats in the parterre, while working class spectators could purchase inexpensive seats in the galleries. Vaudeville had something for everyone, and particular acts in the vaudeville lineup appealed differently to different groups in the audience. Irish comics and tenors, for instance, found a ready audience among the “lace curtain” Irish in the audience while WASP mothers out shopping with a child might prefer the circus-like entertainment of an animal act or juggling.

“Variety entertainment emerged gradually throughout the nineteenth century, starting in circus sideshows, concert saloons, burlesque theatres, minstrel shows, and dime museum performances. These early forms of variety theatre had an unsavory reputation associated with rough-house behavior [which] appealed mainly to working class men.

B.F. Keith, vaudeville theatre owner, founder of The Keith Circuit

“Producers such as Tony Pastor in the 1880s and especially B.F. Keith and E.F. Albee in the 1890s gave birth to vaudeville by turning these earlier forms of variety theatre into “respectable” family entertainment. This transformation was not an easy one. For example, Douglas Gilbert, in American Vaudeville (1940), describes the challenge Keith and Albee confronted when they first opened the Bijou Theatre in Philadelphia in the late 1880s:

“[Boys in the gallery] screamed at acts, shouted obscene epithets at girl performers, and otherwise made life hell for actors and more orderly patrons. To curb them, Albee insisted that caps be removed, forbade smoking, and banned all whistling, stamping, spitting on the floor, and crunching of peanuts.” (206)

Teresa chose to go on stage in vaudeville where the audience was more genteel and more likely to appreciate a singer of popular songs.


The Life Fantastic Vaudeville, Burlesque, and the Follies

What’s the difference between vaudeville, burlesque, and revue shows like The Ziegfield Follies?

Bon Ton BurlesqueBurlesque originated in London in the 1830s and ran until the 1890s where it was most often a musical theater parody of a well-known play or opera or ballet. Brought to America in the 1840s, American Burlesque took a turn toward satiric and bawdy productions which usually incorporated exotic dancers. These performances were frequented by working-class men. Tickets were very inexpensive.

Sandow Tracadero Vaudeville“Vaudeville grew out of that burlesque tradition when Tony Pastor and E.B. Keith recognized, in the 1880s, that middle class families would come to their theaters, and create more profit, if they had classier acts that wouldn’t offend or scandalize women and children. Types of acts included popular and classical musicians, singers, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, female and male impersonators, acrobats, illustrated songs, jugglers, one-act plays or scenes from plays, athletes, lecturing celebrities, minstrels, and movies.” (Wikipedia)

Ziegfield FolliesThe Ziegfield Follies were on Broadway and then radio from 1907 to 1936. The costumes were lavish, the sets were splendiferous, and there were always Ziegfield Girls parading up and down long stairways in fanciful costumes. The acts were similar to those on the vaudeville stage. In fact, many performers moved easily from burlesque to vaudeville to Follies venues, especially the most well-known stars.

Teresa wouldn’t have dreamed of going on the burlesque stage. Because of its origins in burlesque, many people believed that vaudeville was only “one step up from girlie shows.” Vaudeville was attainable but the Follies, performed only in New York City, were beyond her reach when The Life Fantastic takes place. In 1913, Teresa was just beginning her career. After the last chapter of the book … where do you think Teresa’s career will take her next?


The Life Fantastic in classrooms

Why read this book and discuss vaudeville in your classroom?

Marion Davies

Marion Davies, actress, comedienne, and William Randolph Hearst’s romantic interest. [photo: Wikimedia Commons]

There’s such a focus on celebrity and movies in teens’ lives. Wanting to be a part of the excitement is a reality for many of your students. The Life Fantastic captures the aspirations of 15-year-old Teresa who wants desperately to be singing on-stage. By studying vaudeville, you’ll have good discussions about history, economics, industrialization, the development of leisure among more affluent families, racism in the Gilded Age (in the 1890s up to World War I), and what led up to our entertainment-focused society today. The Life Fantastic provides a historically-based fiction narrative with opportunities to discuss social studies while exploring celebrities at the turn of the last century.

Will Rogers, storyteller, cowboy, humorist, actor [photo: Wikimedia Commons]

Throughout the next few months, we’ll feature articles about vaudeville set against the backdrop of historical events that will help you craft lesson plans for your classroom.

Here, we’ve suggested two people who were wildly popular in 1913, the year in which The Life Fantastic is set. Have your students do a bit of research about their lives and accomplishments. and compare them with today’s celebrities. Which of our current fan favorites will be remembered in 100 years? Are their lives and reasons for celebrity that much different?


The Life Fantastic, Question Three

Canary in a cageLiza, how did a dead canary inspire you to write this novel?

Vaudeville has fascinated me since I was a small child. That’s when my father told me the romantic story about my great-grandmother, Carrie Lebo. She stole away from home in the night to elope with a vaudeville musician, leaving her pet canary behind. The family found the bird dead in its cage the next morning and declared it a bad omen. 

William Patton, Carrie’s sweetheart, was a charming red-headed violinist. Carrie had a lovely voice and played the piano. The couple sang and played with a vaudeville troupe that moved from town to town, performing in small theatres. They had two children: a son; and my paternal grandmother, Thelma June. 

The couple’s elopement created a scandal in the small town of Shreve, Ohio, as did their divorce a few years later. Growing up, I often asked my grandmother about her parents. She told me that Carrie loved to sing, and that she was a skilled seamstress and music teacher. Although my grandmother had inherited her parents’ love of music (she also played piano), she refused to speak about her father, except to mention his red hair, and the fact that he seldom visited. Sadly, she was ashamed of her parents’ history.

For my grandfather George Ketchum, who started working when he was eleven, vaudeville was the only entertainment he could afford on his meager earnings. From the time I was four or five, Grandpa and I sang vaudeville songs together. He taught me silly, off-color tunes such as “Everybody works but Father, he sits around all day,” (here’s Groucho Marx singing it) and “There lay Brown, upside down, lapping up the whiskey off the floor.” Grandpa described what it was like to sit in the cheapest gallery seats, high above the stage, enjoying the shows with a rowdy audience.

From the National Trust for Historical Preservation, credit: Huw Webber

Thanks to my grandparents’ stories, I wondered: what was life like for vaudeville performers of all ages and backgrounds? One summer, while driving across the country, I stopped in the town of Leadville, high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, and visited the Tabor Opera House, which has been restored to its former grandeur. As my footsteps echoed in the quiet aisles, I looked up at the empty stage, with its beautiful forest backdrop, and tried to imagine the theatre packed with miners and other residents who were grateful for entertainment in their remote mining town. Since my grandmother couldn’t—or wouldn’t—tell her parents’ story, I decided to invent one myself.


The Life Fantastic, Question Two

Liza, why are you so interested in theater?

Ever since I was young, I have loved theater, music, and dance. The arts were an essential part of our family life, growing up. Music was always playing on our living room turntable, and our parents sang in the car with us on long drives. When our Nashville cousins came for summer visits, with their guitars, ukuleles, and their wonderful collection of songs, we sang for hours. 

My brother and I made up stories about our stuffed animals when we were young, and my friends and I invented characters and put on small plays. With the Ransom family—six boys whose mother loved theater—we put on plays (such as “Winnie-the-Pooh”) and played charades late into the night. I also liked dance, as this picture shows. I have no memory of the story behind it, but I recognize the dance studio in Vermont, where I spent childhood summers. I must have been about seven. 

Liza Ketchum dancing in Vermont

Here I am, dancing in Vermont. I’m the dancer on the left.

In "Ghost Train," I'm the actress seated on the chair.

In “Ghost Train,” I’m the actress seated on the chair.

In Junior High, I sang the lead of Mabel in “The Pirates of Penzance” (Gilbert and Sullivan), and in high school, I performed in the melodramatic play, “Ghost Train.”  (My most vivid and embarrassing memory of that performance was hearing my father’s laugh ring out from the front row of the audience. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized the play was a farce.) During my senior year, I was head of the Drama Club and often went to see theater in Boston, some of it experimental. I had a minor role in Shaw’s “Major Barbara,” probably the most difficult role I would ever play—because I was onstage for the entire play, but only had four lines. I had to act without speaking.

After high school, I attended The Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City for a summer, and there I was introduced to Method Acting. In a funny way, that eight-week course—where I had to improvise and inhabit roles of people totally different from myself —was excellent training for writing novels. Just as in fiction, I had to imagine what it would be like to inhabit the body, mind, and emotions of another person. I had to invent that person’s history, family, and experience—not easy for a young adult who didn’t know much about the wider world. (Just out of high school, my fellow students were all adults working day jobs while trying to break into the theater.)

I was a camp drama coach for three summers, but by the end of my first year in college, where I took a terrific writing class, I knew I would become a writer. I’ve never lost my love for live theater and I’m lucky to live just outside Boston, a first-class theater city.