By Talia Mindich - 10/22/13 12:32 AM EDT
Unlike the other statues in the corridor off the House floor, humorist Will Rogers watches people. [WATCH VIDEO]
Colonial Gov. Jonathan Trumbull looks down at his parchment. French Jesuit missionary and explorer James Marquette stares straight ahead.
The statue, which Oklahoma gave to the National Statuary Hall collection in 1939, stands in the second-floor corridor between the rotunda and the House chamber — a stakeout location for camera crews looking to catch House members during voting. It’s also a common meeting place for reporters and lawmakers, with staff often directing the media to be at the “Will Rogers stakeout” at a certain time.
Many lawmakers believe that Rogers requested the placement so he could keep an eye on Congress, which provided an endless source of humor for America’s beloved movie star, radio broadcaster and newspaper columnist.
“They’ve got him turned toward the House for a reason,” said Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), whose collection of Will Rogers quotations is well known among his colleagues. “He said before he died, ‘Even after I’m gone, I’m gonna keep an eye on you.’ ”
But the statue’s placement is a coincidence, said Barbara Wolanin, curator of the Architect of the Capitol.
“It really isn’t factual, but it’s a fun story,” Wolanin said of the legend in an interview with C-SPAN. Jo Davidson, the sculptor of the statue and friend of Will Rogers, suggested the location because he said it had the best light.
Many lawmakers also believe the statue is lucky and will rub Will Rogers’s left foot for good fortune. The tradition has persisted for decades, despite the Capitol’s efforts to conserve the statue with “Do Not Touch” signs.
“Those who look after the Capitol don’t like people to rub Will Rogers’s foot, but it is good luck,” said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) after he was caught in the act. He couldn’t resist. It’s tradition.
“Don’t hold me responsible,” Frelinghuysen said. “My father was a member of Congress for 22 years, and when I came here as a child and sat on the floor of the House in his lap, I think the Will Rogers [statue] was in the vicinity here, and people did what I’ve been doing.”
Why is it good luck? Frelinghuysen answered: “It just is.”
Wolanin said she wishes people wouldn’t touch the feet because the statue is getting worn down.
“It’s really not good luck for Will Rogers to have people touch his shoes,” Wolanin told C-SPAN in 2001.
In fact, Rogers’s statue is suffering the same fate as other famous images. Like St. Peter’s statue in Rome, which has had its toes replaced several times after being worn down by the touch of the devoted, the tops of Rogers’s shoes were almost completely worn from brown to gold. They have been touched-up, but a splotch of gold on the tip of his left toe shows that the rubbing persists.
Although the statue represents Oklahoma, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) — also a foot rubber — says the legacy of Will Rogers transcends his home state.
“Will Rogers we like to think of as the quintessential Oklahoman, but honestly I think he was an American original,” said Cole. “[He] is like Mark Twain. You may be from Missouri, but every American owns Mark Twain, and I think the same thing’s true of Will Rogers: Every American has a piece of Will Rogers.”
William Penn Adair Rogers, who famously said, “I never met a man I didn’t like,” was one of the best-known celebrities of his time.
He was born on Nov. 4, 1879 in Native American territory (near what is now Claremore, Okla.). In the 10th grade, he left school to become a cowboy and traveled around the world performing rope tricks, which he began presenting onstage as a Vaudeville performer in 1904. He joined the Ziegfeld Follies in 1914.
As a movie star, radio star, syndicated newspaper columnist and author, Rogers spoke to the nation with through his wit. His favorite topic was politics, especially Congress.
”I just seem lost for comedy since Congress adjourned,” said Rogers when the 69th Congress ended in 1927. “I would keep them in session the year round for my business, but I have some consideration for people.”
On Aug. 15, 1935, Rogers died in a plane crash near Point Barrow, Alaska. His statue was unveiled June 6, 1939, before a crowd of 1,800 in the Capitol Rotunda. (An identical statue had been placed at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, Okla.). Members of Congress and Vice President John Nance Garner took part in the ceremony.
Since then, Rogers’s favorite source of comedy has been at his statue’s feet — literally. It’s no wonder he’s smiling.