Years ago, I worked for the California Park Service at Will Rogers State Historic Park, and going through papers one day, I came across this story.
The original Broadway production of Ah, Wilderness in 1933 with none other than George M. Cohan in the starring role of Nat Miller, the role played in the musical version by Walter Pidgeon. A year later, the show was re-mounted in a major production in San Francisco with Will Rogers in the same starring role. At the time, Will Rogers was not only a popular actor, but the top box-office star in the country, when the country was movie crazy. He was a big deal -- not just from his movies, but his radio show and newspaper column, all with his good-natured, homespun humor. He was taking a break from movies, and had a long contract with the show, agreeing to take it on the road across the country after the San Francisco run ended.
Will Rogers considered the impact of the letter. He cared a great deal about his audience, and knew that they did trust him for good, family humor and content. And he decided that the minister had a point. So, he told the producers that he would agree to play out the rest of the run of the show in San Francisco, but after that he negotiated to get out of the contract, and wouldn't take the show on tour. It would have to travel without him.
Check the program above. Look underneath the heading of the Curran Theatre. There you can see the opening date of this production, May 7, 1934.
No longer having a long run tour with the show, Will Rogers now had a great deal of unexpected free time on his schedule. So, in its place, he planned to go on an adventurous trip with his friend, the aviator Wylie Post. And on August 15, 1935, the two of them crashed and were killed in Point Barrows, Alaska.
There are easy morals that might be drawn from this, about listening to others pontificating about decency, though I think those are a bit unfair. In the end, it was Will Rogers' decision to leave the show because he had a certain reputation with his audience and wanted to keep to that standard. Whether most of his fans felt the same as the minister is another matter. They might have been fine with it, and given that we only know about this one letter only, it's quite possible they were mostly fine with it. But further, there are a great many things Will Rogers could have chosen to do with with newly-freed up time. He chose the air trip. But it's nonetheless impossible to hear this story and not shake your head, "If only..."