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Back at the Ranch : A Weekend of Rope Tricks and Picnics at Will Rogers State Park

November 03, 1985|CYNTHIA KADONAGA

With the sun as spotlight, a cast of characters ranging from Rocky to the Golden Oldies Soccer League plays against a backdrop of dust, grass and chaparral at Will Rogers State Park.

"Rocky" star Sylvester Stallone plays polo. Rock artist Rod Stewart plays croquet. And there are the fleeting stars of soccer, volleyball, paddle ball and tennis, whose recognition fades along with the polite applause of their friends.

They all play at the Cowboy Philosopher's old home--a home with a range. The 186 acres in Pacific Palisades, donated 41 years ago for use as a state park, reflects the varied background and interests of William Penn Adair Rogers, from cowboys and Indians to polo and aviation.

Born Nov. 4, 1879, on a ranch near Claremore, Okla., Rogers was known for his rope tricks and homespun humor. A former vaudeville star, he appeared in about 70 Westerns and was a top box-office attraction in 1934. At the time of his death a year later, his syndicated newspaper column, "Will Rogers Says," was being read by 40 million Americans--one third of the U.S. population at that time.

Rogers' white wooden ranch house and stable have been maintained as they were when he, his wife Betty, daughter Mary, and sons Will Jr. and Jim moved there in 1928. Farther downhill is the polo field, built in 1922 and still used regularly by the Will Rogers Polo Club, the Golden Oldies Soccer League and morning exercise groups from nearby Fire Station No. 69.

Beyond these manicured grounds stretch the wilds of the Santa Monica Mountains, where trails curl like narrow ribbons through a low-lying jungle of laurel sumac, sage, poison oak and chaparral. Following the dusty tracks of horseshoes, tennis shoes and hiking boots up to Backbone Trail, which straddles the spine of these mountains for 55 miles north to Point Mugu, one sees civilization from afar: asphalt strewn with four-wheeled confetti, cities laid out like dominoes along the Pacific.

Back at the ranch, the Old West awaits. Rogers' two-story living room, built to accommodate his rope tricks, has a beamed ceiling with carved horse-head struts. Because Rogers was both a cowboy and an Indian, the walls are lined with family chaps and cattle brands, bits and bridles, Indian Concho belts and a beaded breechcloth. In the center of the room is a stuffed calf with ears worn down by Rogers' roping. It was a gift from Western artist Ed Borein, who had become tired of being lassoed each time he entered the room.

Roping was Rogers' strength and weakness. He was expelled from an Oklahoma grade school when he spooked the headmaster's colt by trying to lasso it. Rogers' father, a prominent rancher, banker and judge, sent him to a more disciplined military academy in Missouri, but the prodigal son returned home after learning that he would have to repeat the fourth grade.

He remained at home until 1902, when he sold a herd of calves that his father had given him and sailed to Argentina and then to South Africa to work as a cowhand. It was in South Africa that he first knew roping fame as "The Cherokee Kid, the World's Champion Lassoer." He later traveled to Australia and New Zealand with his act, eventually joining New York's Ziegfeld Follies in 1916.

During one of his New York performances, he got caught in his rope, and, embarrassed, drawled, "A rope isn't so bad to get tangled up in--if it isn't around your neck." It was the inadvertent debut of his trademark aw-shucks humor.

Rogers' humor and humanity echo in each of the ranch's 31 rooms. On the rafters leading to the dining room hangs a mounted Scottish Highland steer's head with horns spanning four feet. Rogers had admired the steer at a Santa Barbara fiesta and offered to pay the owner $100 for its head when it died. When the head arrived shortly afterward, Rogers--who did not believe in killing except for food or survival--vowed never again to make such an offer.

The house also shows signs of strain. In the music room, on his wife's mahogany Knabe piano, is a brandy snifter one-quarter full of dry rose petals. Left by Charles Lindbergh's sister-in-law, Elizabeth Morrow, the petals are a memorial to the time the Lindberghs took refuge there shortly after their infant son was kidnapped in 1932.

Rogers shared Lindbergh's passion for flying, and even booked himself as baggage onto cross-country mail planes before commercial flights had developed. That passion eventually consumed him: On Aug. 15, 1935, Rogers died in a plane crash at Point Barrows, Alaska, while en route to the Soviet Union. He and Wiley Post, the one-eyed pilot who flew with Harold Gatty around the world in a record-breaking eight days, had been exploring the possibility of a mail and passenger route between the United States and Eastern Europe.

The view from Rogers' mountain retreat, overlooking Los Angeles International Airport, is a fitting memorial to the man once known as "America's No. 1 Air Traveler."

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