In my spare time, and when the thought occurs to me, I enjoy browsing the Digital Video Repository of the Moving Image Research Collections (or MIRC) at the University of South Carolina, a vast online archive of historical film footage, much of which consists of newsreels footage. Often, I’ll just enter some different search terms and see if I can find anything interesting. It was on one such online excursion that I stumbled across a newsreel (or rather outtakes thereof) depicting the arrival of the famed humorist, movie star, and cowboy philosopher Will Rogers in San Antonio, Texas, that caught my attention. I am (as any red-blooded American surely must be) counted among Will Rogers’ legion of admirers, but his presence was not what attracted my interest to the video. Rather, it was the appearance of a background character that struck me as a familiar face.
The newsreel was made to document the beginning of Will Rogers’ tour of Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas—a Red Cross benefit for the relief of drought affected farmers. Rogers was not touring alone however, he was accompanied on the journey by another popular entertainer bearing a very similar surname: Jimmie Rodgers, who was providing his musical talents to the benefit. Will joked that they could have formed a vaudeville team as “the world’s only yodeling rope-throwers,” and as friendship blossomed, he soon came to refer to Jimmie as his “distant son.” The duo prefaced the beginning of the tour with an appearance in the capital of Texas—Austin—on January 25, 1931, and then flew by Ford Tri-Motor airplane approximately eighty miles southwestward to San Antonio the following day. There, on that drizzly Texas winter day, the twenty-sixth of January, 1931, the plane was met by a Fox Movietone news crew, who filmed Rogers’ reception, which saw him greeted by San Antonio mayor C.M. Chambers and named an honorary member of local social club and charitable organization the Texas Cavaliers. The rainy weather grounded the plane, so Rogers and Rodgers, along with Will Jr. and trick roper Chester Byers, departed by automobile for San Angelo the day after, dropping by Jimmie’s home in Kerrville along the way.
In the resulting footage, as Rogers can be seen cracking his usual wise before the microphone, a man who appears to be a member of the entourage that made the journey with him stands behind him and to his left, clad in a ten-gallon silverbelly hat and what appears to be a fur-collared coat over a suit-and-tie (the same man can earlier be seen putting his hat on after presumably disembarking from the plane). While the superstar Rogers commands most of the crowd’s attention, the figure in question at one point bows his head to seemingly oblige a request for an autograph by a young fan standing before him. When Rogers moves on to speak with a representative of the Texas Cavaliers, the man lingers behind, eventually taking up a position behind the crowd of on-lookers that has swamped the star, flashing to the camera for a brief moment a familiar crooked grin before beginning a conversation with an unknown brown-hatted individual. As Rogers heads towards his awaiting motor car, crowd in tow, the man hangs back once again, continuing to chat with his acquaintance as the camera pans him out of the picture.
Could this man be Jimmie Rodgers?
It certainly looks an awful lot like him to me! Though rather difficult to ascertain from the lacking picture quality of the video, he does appear to share the Blue Yodeler’s prominent ears, his long and slightly hooked nose, his hairline—receding at the temple—his slightly puffy eyelids, his distinctive rightward tilted smile, and the overall proportions of his head and facial features. His height, too, appears congruous with Rodgers, appearing perhaps just slightly taller than Will Rogers. Circumstantial though it is, even the man’s hat bears an uncanny resemblance to ones Rodgers was photographed in, and looks virtually identical to the one he wore when photographed with Will Rogers outside Blue Yodeler’s Paradise—his home in nearby Kerrville—only a day-or-so after the newsreel was shot, and the man in the film wears it cocked at just the same jaunty angle. The man’s position behind Rogers as he talks with the mayor would seem to indicate him as part of the movie star’s group, rather than one of the hoi polloi gathered around. As it is well-documented that Rodgers accompanied Rogers on his Red Cross tour, and even that he was with him on the plane from Austin to San Antonio on that very day, it not only stands to reason but seems quite likely that he would be present in surviving footage of the affair. I brought the issue before the committee (i.e. my esteemed friends and colleagues via Facebook), and the consensus was in agreement with my initial assessment: that it seems probable that man in the newsreel is Jimmie Rodgers.
If this newsreel does in fact contain footage of the Singing Brakeman, it constitutes a truly remarkable discovery, as in the decades since Rodgers’ demise the only publicly known moving picture of Jimmie Rodgers has been his Columbia-Victor Gem short film (aptly titled) The Singing Brakeman. If authentic, it would provide us a unique, if scant, and incalculably valuable (at least for devotees of Rodgers’ work such as myself) glimpse at Jimmie Rodgers in a candid atmosphere—a look at his natural composure and mannerisms. While I cannot think of any means, at least of those at my disposal, to irrefutably prove or disprove the fact, in my own most reasoned and researched opinion, with all due skepticism applied, this film most likely does indeed depict Jimmie Rodgers.
So I ask you, the reader, for your opinions on the matter—if you so desire, study the video and photographs, and share your thoughts; is this never-before-seen footage of Jimmie Rodgers, or just some lookalike Will Rogers groupie?