Malibu and Beverly Hills are filled with countless movie stars' homes which tourists can drive past and admire from a distance. But this is one of only two movie star's estates in West L.A. that you can actually visit and experience for yourself.
Its former owner has been portrayed on stage by James Whitmore in the tribute "Will Rogers' USA." In the 1994 Broadway musical, "The Will Rogers Follies," Keith Carradine and Mac Davis took turns in the lead role of the cowboy humorist. And in 1952's "The Story of Will Rogers" the lead role was played by his own son, Will Rogers Jr.
But how big a star was Will Rogers in his own time?
He was the biggest movie box office attraction of his day. He was a radio star as well, and his syndicated column was carried in more newspapers than that of any other writer. The airport in Oklahoma City is named after him. In the Depression year of 1930, he was earning $300,000 a picture. The beloved humorist was even nominated as a "favorite son" candidate for President of the United States. At his prime, Will Rogers was the most popular person in America.
When he was killed in a plane crash in 1935, ten thousand mourners filled the Hollywood Bowl to honor him, including virtually every movie star and studio mogul in Hollywood. At the time of his death, he was still the number one star of 20th Century Fox Studios.
Will Rogers, the cowboy humorist, actor, radio personality and social critic, started out as a trick roper in Wild West carnivals. When he moved on to the stage with the Ziegfeld Follies, he started telling folksy, homespun stories to fill out his rope act (and cover up when a rope trick didn't quite work the way he wanted). He went on to become first a major Broadway star, then a silent movie star, and eventually, the most popular radio personality of his time. His witty, common sense observations about life & politics earned him the adulation of the masses.
Rogers was the first comedian to ever tell a joke about a President while that President (Herbert Hoover) was in the audience... and he got a laugh. He was widely quoted as having said "I never met a man I didn't like" (although he was never fond of screenwriters or President Harding.)
He is also credited with discovering Gene Autry, the original singing cowboy. Autry was working as a telegraph operator in Oklahoma when Will Rogers chanced to hear him sing on the job. Rogers recommended that the young man go to New York and pursue a career in radio - and the rest is history.
Will Rogers once said of Los Angeles: "It's a great place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit there."
True to his word, Will Rogers was one of the first celebrities to live in Beverly Hills; he had a home at 925 Beverly Drive until 1928. He helped the city defeat an annexation move by Los Angeles (*), and was elected the first mayor of Beverly Hills (he joked that his primary duty as mayor was to point out the location of Pickfair to tourists). But he bought this property in 1922 - at the height of his career- and after 1928, Will Rogers moved permanently to his hilltop ranch in Pacific Palisades, a few miles west of Beverly Hills.
Located just above Sunset Boulevard (before it reaches the ocean), about half way between the San Diego (405) Freeway and Pacific Coast Highway, up amidst the hills and canyons, the ranch isn't exactly on the beaten path. It's a long, winding drive up through some beautiful California canyon country to reach the Will Rogers estate. But it's well worth the trip.
This park was Rogers' ranch and home from 1924 until his death in 1935, where he lived with his wife Betty and their three children, Will, Jr., Mary, and James. He picked a beautiful spot for his home, a rustic hideaway in a virtual forest of towering trees, which captures a bit of the Old West right here in Los Angeles. It's a woodsy, 186-acre retreat with corrals, horses, hiking and riding trails, polo fields, rugged canyons & hillsides, splendid panoramic views, tennis courts, picnic areas, and of course Will Rogers' own unconventional ranch house.
After driving up a rather steep little side road, you park your car near the Visitor's Center, where you can tour a small museum with exhibits about the cowboy-comic (containing busts, photos, a scale model of his home, etc.). You can also watch a short film here about his life & times. Pick up a free "audio wand" nearby; it will help lead you on a self-guided tour of the large estate, with "listening posts" located throughout the estate.
On the south side of the parking lot is the broad green lawn of a regulation-size Polo Field. Will Rogers was an avid polo buff, and the field is still used today on Saturdays for colorful polo matches.
A fine, grassy knoll with picnic tables lies just northeast above the polo field. The public is free to come out and watch these colorful, fast-paced polo games on Saturdays and Sundays. On Saturdays, the two-hour polo matches usually begin at 2 PM. On Sundays, the games begin at 10 AM and last until noon. Come early to be sure of finding a parking space. There is even a Will Rogers Polo Club with its own website. To see their polo tournament schedule, click here. (To learn more about polo in modern Hollywood, click here.)
Just north of the visitor's center, you'll find Will Rogers' rustic ranch-style home, where you can see how Rogers lived and entertained his movie star friends. Actually, there are two houses, both of them large, white, wood-frame buildings with shingled roofs and a verandah-style wooden front porches which look out over a sweeping green lawn. (This lawn also served as a small golf course in Rogers' time). The house supposedly contains 31 rooms, including 11 baths, but it sure doesn't look that large from the outside.
The largest wing of the house contains only a single large room downstairs, decorated with the unmistakably eccentric touch of the cowboy humorist. This living room is a cavernous space, its barn-like rafters adorned with animal hides and Indian blankets. The home preserves Rogers' original furniture and mementos, from the informal, hammock-like couches to a wooden cigar-store Indian. The colorful furnishings include a handsome dining room table, a massive set of bull horns over the stone fireplace, large oil portraits of Rogers & his wife, and an old, hand-cranked "hurdy gurdy " machine which plays loud honky-tonk tunes.
Among the many colorful knickknacks filling the room is a small stuffed calf (on wheels), used by Will Rogers to practice his roping tricks. A tour guide will tell you all about the other interesting items.
The wing to the north is a more traditional home, with a library, another stone fireplace, and several rooms upstairs.
After touring the house, your next best bet is to head up a short trail to the northwest. Will Rogers loved horses (his favorite horse was named "Soapsuds"), so it's no surprise that this trail leads you to a large stable area.
The main barn (with an unusual round, canopy roof) still houses a number of horses, and just outside the stable is a spacious oval riding ring. On weekdays you can sometimes watch young women in riding clothes being taught the basics of English horseback riding. You'll often encounter horses on the ranch's many riding trails and pastures. (Unfortunately, these horses aren't for rent to the public, which is a shame; riding up to Inspiration Point on horseback would be a delight.)
Stroll around to the southeast side of the walking ring, and you'll find the start of the woodsy Inspiration Loop Trail. Follow it up to its summit - if you don't mind a little exercise. The panoramic views seen from various points along this ranch trail are nothing short of fantastic. The best views take a little uphill walking along Inspiration Point trail, so bring along some comfortable shoes, and be sure to pick up a map at the entrance (when you pay your parking fees).
The main trail is a reasonably short, wide horse path made of soft earth and fallen leaves, framed by rows of sweet-smelling eucalyptus trees. It leads gradually up around a winding hill to the north of the Rogers house, the views below improving with each step.
At the top, at Inspiration Point, the view below is breathtaking - a fabulous, sweeping vista framed by forested canyon hillsides; from distant office towers of West Los Angeles all the way to the blue Pacific ocean. Try to choose one of L.A.'s rare smog-free days for your visit (preferably after a brief rain or after strong winds have blown away the haze). On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Palos Verdes Peninsula and beyond. It is, without doubt, one of the finest views in Los Angeles.
All in all, the Will Rogers estate is a wonderful, tranquil, rustic bit of our Hollywood past tucked away just a few minutes from the rush of the big city. It's well worth a visit.
(One weekend a year, in March, the park hosts an annual Wild West Show, put on by the Wild West Arts Club Convention. It takes place on the polo field, and involves trick ropers, riders, knife throwers, whip-crackers, and other such Western arena sports. You can even learn a little trick-roping at this fun outing. Phone for exact times and dates of this year's event.)
There is a $6 "day use" (admission) fee, which includes parking.
Park open daily: 8 AM to dusk. The ranch house is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
(Don't confuse this estate with the much smaller Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills.)
Getting there: The park is located in the hills above western Sunset Boulevard, about midway between Pacific Coast Highway (on the west) and the San Diego (405) Freeway on the west. From the San Diego (405) Freeway, take the Sunset Boulevard exit, and follow curvy Sunset Boulevard west (about four and a half miles) to Will Rogers State Park Road (past the tight turns following Spezia Place). Watch for the signs near the entrance. Then turn right, onto Will Rogers State Park Road, a small, steep, winding road which leads directly to the park gates / From Hollywood & Vine, go south on Vine Street two blocks to Sunset Boulevard, and turn right (west). Take Sunset Boulevard west almost ten miles (through Beverly Hills and Bel-Air) to where it crosses the San Diego (405) Freeway, then follow the directions above.
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Copyright © 2013-Gary Wayne
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