A few years ago, Kevin McKillip got one of those offers that actors dream of.
“(First Folio Theatre), which I’m a member of in Chicago, came to me and said, ‘We’d like you to do a one-man show,’” McKillip said. “I said, ‘Wonderful. Can I see the script?’”
The surprising reply: “‘We don’t have one yet. We were hoping you could write it.’”
That challenge led to McKillip’s discovery of Will Rogers, the actor/writer/radio personality whose wit and insight captivated America in the early 20th century. “Will Rogers: An American Original,” which McKillip wrote and performs, begins a three-week run at Stormfield Theatre tonight.
Although McKillip, 36, is a classically trained actor who spent two years at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada (winning the Tyrone Guthrie Award for his work during the 2003 season), he also has “a reputation for being somewhat physically adept,” he said. He’s a clown, a fight choreographer, a unicyclist and a juggler.
Those skills served him well as he taught himself the rope tricks that were a trademark of the Oklahoma-born Rogers.
“I got lassos and started tossing them around my apartment, knocking things over,” he said. He also practiced in a nearby park on Lake Shore Drive. “I actually did take the bullwhip out there and cracked it a few times. But the police showed up: Someone had reported hearing gunfire.”
McKillip’s research led him to Rogers’ birthplace in Claremore/Oologah, Okla., and a two-day trip through the private library of the Will Rogers Trust, where he perused Rogers’ original letters and other items not available to the general public.
Rogers became a beloved figure through his appearances in the touring Ziegfeld Follies, which he joined in 1915. (His Ziegfeld performances were the basis for the Tony-winning musical “The Will Rogers Follies.”) Over the next 20 years, Rogers wrote a syndicated column, hosted radio shows on CBS and NBC, wrote best-selling books on everything from the perils of Prohibition to the aftermath of his gall bladder surgery and became an enormous movie star, first in silent films and then in the “talkies.” His quotes — “Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for,” “I never met a man I didn’t like,” “Lettin’ the cat out of the bag is a lot easier than puttin’ it back in,” “If stupidity got us in this mess, why can’t it get us out?,” etc. —were known around the world.
Imagine a celebrity with the combined power and influence of Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks and Stephen Colbert, and you’ll have an idea of the hold Rogers had on the nation in the 1920s and 1930s. “He was the king of all media,” McKillip said.
Even more astonishing, Rogers’ observations about the political world of his day are still timely.
“Some of his material could have been written five minutes ago,” notes Kristine Thatcher, who’s directing “Original.”
“I belong to no organized party: I am a Democrat,” Rogers noted. Other choice one-liners included, “There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you” and “People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.”
When McKillip did the show recently, he said he was approached by an audience member “who asked which lines I’d pulled from the 1930s and which ones I’d written about the current economic climate.” The words, he explained, are all Rogers’.
When Rogers was killed in a plane crash on Aug. 15, 1935, America was shaken. NBC and CBS radio ceased to broadcast for 30 minutes. An estimated 150,000 mourners attended his funeral services at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif.
“He was a living national treasure,” McKillip said. “One of the reasons I decided to do this is that people don’t remember or haven’t been told who he is.”
Even those who should know better. McKillip gave an interview to a theater columnist in Chicago who wanted to know which songs would be featured in his show. He was puzzled at first since one thing Will Rogers was not famous for was his singing.
“Then it hit me,” McKillip said. “She thinks this is about Roy Rogers,” the celebrated “Singing Cowboy” of the 1940s and 1950s.
Blame it on those rope tricks.
’Will Rogers: An American Original’
Through Nov. 20
7 p.m. tonight pay-what-you-will performance
Regular shows: 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
201 Morgan Lane, Lansing
$18 Thursdays; $24 Fridays and Saturdays; $20 Sundays; $2 off for seniors; $10 students