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The Lost History of Will Rogers

Will Rogers was presented the title of "honorary mayor" when he lived in Beverly Hills.

While doing research for a book featuring photographs and summaries of Beverly Hills Citizen archives, I discovered that, lost in history, Will Rogers' honorary Beverly Hills mayoral title was taken away from him. He also moved out of our beloved city during his later life. Why did this happen? Please read this story about one of our town's first residents to find out.

Known as Oklahoma's "favorite son," Rogers was born to a prominent Cherokee Nation family in Indian Territory (now a part of Oklahoma) in 1879. He traveled around the world three times and made 71 movies (50 silent films and 21 "talkies") during his career. 

After spending 10 years in The Flo Ziegfield Follies, Rogers moved to Beverly Hills in 1925. He so loved the sparsely populated "Shangrila to the West of L.A." that his booking and business offices joined him here. When one peruses the pages of the Beverly Hills Citizen, it cannot be denied that almost every personal and political wisecrack that Rogers quipped was published. He also supported many community endeavors, including the erection of our first true civic center in the early 1930s as well as the development of our last remaining major piece of land into .

At the time, Beverly Hills was a quiet, leafy enclave several distant miles from Los Angeles. Wealthy residents owned both a car and one or two horses. Favorite horse paths were found on both the "Strip Park" (now known as ) along Santa Monica and Wilshire boulevards, at Reservoir Park (now ), along Sunset Boulevard and on the median trail down the center of Rodeo Drive just north of the developing commercial district (the eventual Golden Triangle). 

Both Will Rogers and "America's Sweetheart," resident and renowned actress Mary Pickford were, perhaps, the city's chief promoters. In 1919, a dozen years after northern streets were carved out by the Rodeo Land and Water Company, Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks bought land on Summit Drive and built "Pickfair."

In the early sixties, when my family owned the Beverly Hills Liquor Castle, this writer used to deliver merchandise to the estate for Pickford and her last husband, the quick-smiling Buddy Rogers. If I only knew then, sitting in her kitchen, to whom I was speaking...

With Rogers and Pickford attracting press to Beverly Hills, a mass migration followed some ten years after the city was incorporated. A wisecracking political humorist, Rogers wrote of the land boom in 1923:

Lots are sold so quickly and often out here that they are put through escrow made out to the 12th owner. They couldn't possibly make out a separate deed for each purchaser; besides, he wouldn't have time to read it in the 10 minutes' time he owned the land.

Because of Rogers and Pickford, the movie colony was well-entrenched in the community. By 1928 Harold Lloyd, John Barrymore, Robert Montgomery and Mary Hopkins had built residences here.

When Rogers became involved in local government the city received international advertising and the boom continued. The population in 1920 was 674; in 1924, it was 5,000; by 1930, it was 17,429. The issuance of building permits in 1918 totaled $35,200; in 1919, $304,900; in 1921, $787,729; in 1922, $1,838,994.  

In 1923, annexation to the City of Los Angeles was proposed by council members. Rogers and Pickford helped to mobilize voters against the plan. Those for annexation argued that L.A. would provide an adequate supply of higher-quality water to support the community's continued growth. Pro-L.A. supporters left bottles of sulfur-smelling water on the doorsteps of every home in Beverly Hills with a label that read: "Warning. Drink sparingly of this water as it has laxative qualities." 

Despite these campaign tactics, annexation was defeated in a referendum with a vote of 507 to 337. The following year, the city voted to approve $400,000 in bonds to purchase the water system from the Beverly Hills Utilities Company and drill additional wells.

This fight for an independent city was arguably the first union of show business and politics in the United States. Our first dedicated school building, Hawthorne School, soon opened, along with the incorporation of our own school district that separated us from L.A. 

While filming a talkie in Washington, D.C., the U.S. House of Representatives declared Rogers a "Congressman at Large." Because he was one of our own, the president of the Beverly Hills Board of Trustees (there was no mayoral designation then) named Rogers the "Honorary Mayor of Beverly Hills," which was presented to him by S.M. Spalding. (Please note the spelling of "Spalding," as in Spalding Drive. People often mistakenly add a "u" when spelling that street name.)

Here's another error by historians: They sometimes write that Rogers received his honorary title in 1926, but the microfisch tapes of the Beverly Hills Citizen has articles that claim 1925! Rogers became the first and (to date) only person honored as such in Beverly Hills.

Unfortunately, and almost lost in distant history, a couple of years later when the California Secretary of State surprisingly declared such honors were illegal and invalid, both D.C. and Beverly Hills dropped Rogers' honorary titles. True to form, the comedian joked that he was thrilled that he got out of those offices "when the going was good."  

In 1929, when horses were restricted to horse paths in Beverly Hills, Rogers moved out of town because he wanted to ride his horses "wild west style." He built a large ranch in Pacific Palisades—that still exists today—and lived there until his death at the young age of 56. Rogers died in a tragic plane crash with aviator Wiley Post near Barrow, Alaska in 1935. 

Sunset Park, across Sunset Boulevard from the , was renamed in Rogers' honor in 1952. It is known as .

Thank you for reading, Russ.  

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Bill Rowen September 14, 2012 at 08:56 PM
Russ--I loved your article,which is quite informative, but you know what else I'd like to read? An article about the Liquor Castle! Recently I was in BH for the first time in many years and discovered it was gone. I hope you'll find time to write about it. Bill Rowen
Verne Varona April 27, 2013 at 03:25 PM
Well researched and written, Russ! Thank you. As someone who spent over 20 years developing a feature-film project about Will and consuming every morsel of Information about him aermingly available, I was delighted to read some things I never knew. Will's original BH address was the entire small block of Beverly Drive just north of Sunset. That original west side little block, rebuilt a good while ago, now has three homes (or so) on it. When Will owned it his back yard reached The Beverly Hills Hotel and he had a stable with several horses, a small guest house and a large gazebo. Imagine that! Thanks, again. - Verne Varona (vv@vernevarona.com)

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