As your Throwback Thursday columnist, I have a dark secret to share. I’m an enthusiastic silent-film fan who, in an attempt to find a tie between Boulder City and my favorite silent-film star, Charlie Chaplin, accidentally discovered an amazing link to Hollywood history right off Arizona Street. Actor, radio host and writer Will Rogers not only came to Boulder City, but he stayed at the Boulder Dam Hotel.
Lisa Taggart, a writer for Sunset magazine, touted Rogers’ stay in Boulder City for a feature piece titled “The little town by the great big dam.” Sunset magazine holds a demographic of 4.5 million affluent Western travelers, which was a clever way for Taggart to indirectly market a road trip through Boulder City.
In his book “Midnight on Arizona Street: The Secret Life of the Boulder Dam Hotel,” author Dennis McBride states Rogers performed every night at the Boulder Theatre for three weeks in 1935. Fodor’s 2008 Arizona &The Grand Canyon, edited by Caroline Trefler, also features Rogers’ stay at the Boulder Dam Hotel.
Rogers had a lot in common with many of the residents who lived in Boulder City while working on Hoover Dam. Rogers was resilient, even though he was born during a time when little opportunity existed. He was a high school dropout who had lost his mom at age 10. He had no choice but to be ambitious during uncertain times.
Like those who worked on Hoover Dam, Rogers used his hands to develop a skill set, paving a way for success. He learned to lasso from a freed slave on his family’s Oklahoma ranch. In fact, Rogers’ roping skills are listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Taking his roping skills east of his home state, Rogers started working in the circus as a trick roper. He then made his way to vaudeville before being discovered by a Hollywood producer in 1918, when he struck a deal to make silent movies. After creating 48 silent pictures, Rogers found more success with the arrival of “talkies” — movies with sound.
One of Rogers’ first talkies is “They Had to See Paris,” distributed by Fox Films. According to TCM.com, there is an alternative silent version of the film. Acting in movies helped Rogers to build an empire — one complete with politician friends, but he was always perceived as a relatable guy.
From acting to activism, Rogers then discovered he could use the written word, along with satire, to point out the obvious when it came to the political climate of the country. His columns offered insight on policy and opinions on social pitfalls. As a writer, Rogers went on to use his hands to compose more than 2 million published words for more than 4,000 syndicated newspaper columns. He also wrote six books.
While many of Rogers’ columns dealt with contemporary issues, his writer’s voice was slanted from the perspective of small-town morality. He loved to write about hardworking people who were able to beat the odds when the deck was stacked against them, especially back then among the rapidly progressing, industrializing 20th century.
Like those who built Hoover Dam, Rogers was able to defy the odds using his hands in all incarnations of his career — be it lassoing rope for the circus or vaudeville, enhancing a silent movie or penning his opinions. And while Rogers knew he could never shy away from progress, he also knew denying his past to make way for progress would’ve changed how he was perceived. On Aug. 15, 1935, a plane carrying Rogers crashed in Alaska. A Broadway show based on his life was birthed in 1991, and it went on to win several Tony Awards, including best musical.
“They Had to See Paris” is my recommended Throwback Thursday movie, but I’m also recommending Rogers’ 1927 book “There’s Not a Bathing Suit in Russia,” because it offers a certain perspective on the value of what makes small-town microcultures unique — even marketable. Incredibly, the book also points out that sometimes simply observing the past can lead to a profitable future.
Tanya Vece is an entertainment and music writer who resides and volunteers in Boulder City. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @hollywoodwriter.