Thursday, August 21, 2014

Oh What a Beautiful Mornin!

As a kid I was drawn to the shield on the Oklahoma state flag.  It was an Indian shield, an Osage Nation buffalo-skin shield to be exact, with seven eagle feathers and an olive branch and native peace pipe across the front.  It represented the union of the Oklahoma and Indian territories, which came in together as the State of Oklahoma in 1907.

It wasn't the first flag however to represent the state.  I guess after struggling four years to come up with a design, the state went with this rather banal banner, which didn't please anyone, so the state chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution sponsored a competition and Louise Fluke won with the much more appropriate buffalo shield.

Oklahoma is one of those states you hear about but rarely have the opportunity to pass through.  I first came to the state not so much for its native American heritage, as the Price Tower in Bartlesville, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  It was the only "skyscraper" he had built.  It once towered over the small city but now serves as a landmark to a man and his dream of a mile-high skyscraper.  I was lucky I came on a Thursday as it was the only day open to tours at the time.  It was initially designed as a mix-use apartment, office and retail building, but Wright had made the rooms so small that it didn't suit the functions very well.  Now it serves as an Inn.

I ventured around the state a bit after that and liked what I saw.  I drove down through Tulsa and Oklahoma City, crossing the Red River near Quanah, Texas, where I stayed the night at Copper Breaks State Park.

Quanah Parker was an important figure in native American history, and played a significant role in establishing the Indian territories in Oklahoma.  In his day, there were no such borders.  The Comancheria stretched far and wide with the Comanche seen as a continual threat to ranchers, who began moving into the area thanks to the Homestead Acts.  After countless range wars and abductions (Quanah was the son of Cynthia Ann Parker, who had been abducted in the 1830s), the federal government reached an uneasy truce with the Comanche and other native tribes, among them the Cherokee, who had been relocated to the Midwest after enduring the Trail of Tears.

Clement Vann Rogers played a significant role in the statehood drive.  He was part Cherokee and a prominent figure within the tribe, serving as judge and senator. He was their delegate to the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention in 1907.  But, Clement is best known for his son, Will Rogers, who would become an American icon as a humorist and social commentator.

Young Will started out in Vaudeville as a cowboy performer, cracking jokes while he twirled a lariat.  He eventually got into movies, but it was his weekly columns for the McNaught Syndicate that made his mark.  He called them "Slipping the Lariat Over."  From there he branched out into radio and personal appearances, winning the country over with his unique brand of humor.  He had great fun with the Harding/Coolidge years.

Of course, there was the musical too.  Rogers had initially been signed by Oscar Hammerstein's father to do his act on the Victoria Roof with his pony.  One can imagine what it was like to get the small steed into the elevator.  The original Broadway production of Oklahoma! premiered on March 31, 1943, eight years after Will Rogers' death.  It ran for over 2000 performances, almost as many as Roger's rooftop appearances.  The musical gave us many enduring songs, but none moreso than Oh What a Beautiful Mornin!  Here it is from the 1955 movie production, with Gordon McRae singing.  That's Alfred Drake in the original production below.

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