While most people around here spent their summer finding ways to keep cool, Brad Beauchamp was in his garage, teaching himself how to lasso.
He was practicing to play the role of Will Rogers in the University of Saint Francis' first musical production at its new Performing Arts Center (formerly the Scottish Rite), “The Will Rogers Follies.”
The show, which opens Friday, tells the life of Rogers through variety acts and production numbers. Rogers was a talented roper who toured with the Ziegfeld Follies. He became a popular comedian, actor, columnist, author, radio broadcaster and political commentator in the early 1900s. He was beloved nationally for his wit and humor.
Rogers was born to parents who were partly of Cherokee descent in what would become Oklahoma, so he had a folksy Oklahoman way of speaking, which Beauchamp likes to slide into in conversation. Rogers also almost always was chomping on a piece of gum.
“I can talk, chew gum, rope and sing,” Beauchamp says.
His wife, Leslie Beauchamp, who is directing the production, said she wished she could have opened the production a week earlier to coincide with the election, because of the political satire of the show.
Neither Beauchamp can think of a modern comedian or pundit who matches the popularity of Rogers.
“He was a staunch Democrat, but he still poked fun at Democrats,” Leslie Beauchamp said.
Maybe it was because his humor lacked the nasty edge often present today.
“It wasn't nasty or mean-spirited, so he didn't offend anybody,” Leslie Beauchamp said.
Despite the many hours learning roping, Brad Beauchamp says the “thing that scared me most is his speech at the very end of the show.”
It's known as the “Bacon, Beans and Limousines” speech. In 1931, at the height of the Great Depression and at the request of President Herbert Hoover, Rogers went on a radio show to speak to Americans. (You can see it here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyfvamwM4Yo)
In his folksy, plain spoken way, he talks about 7 million Americans being out of work. He speaks of hungry Americans, despite being a country with “more of everything in the world.” And he says a more equal distribution of wealth is needed.
“Everything he says in that speech in the early '30s could be and should be said by someone today,” Brad Beauchamp says.
Yet both Brad and Leslie believe if anybody today said the things Rogers said in the '30s, it would be politicized and criticized.
“All he was saying was help your neighbor, guys,” Leslie Beauchamp said.
Although the show does include political commentary, it also includes big production numbers and flashy costumes, and has a cast of 27. With the move to a much larger theater, “it is a very exciting time for the university and for the drama club,” Leslie Beauchamp said.
The show includes Saint Francis students and community members. The school offers a minor in theater.
Rogers died in a plane crash in 1935, when he was 55. So it's no surprise that “the seniors are crazy that we're doing this show,” Leslie Beauchamp said.
The political bent may appeal to others, and the sheer entertainment value is a draw as well.
“It's family-friendly,” Leslie Beauchamp said. “It's happy; it's bright; it's funny.”