Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, tuberculosis (TB) was as familiar to vaudevillians as were cold dressing rooms, drafty theatres and damp hotels, which increased the spread of the disease. In 1927, the National Vaudeville Artists (NVA) founded a lodge at Saranac Lake, New York, as a convalescent home for performers afflicted with TB. The mission of the hospital was to treat tuberculosis patients as welcome and wanted friends, not outcasts.
Although the Lodge prospered at first, the continuing national depression and a decline in the vaudeville phase of entertainment created financial difficulties. It became necessary for the NVA to transfer responsibilities for the hospital to the Will Rogers Memorial Commission. This commission had been formed in 1935, following the death of Will Rogers in an airplane crash at Point Barrow, Alaska. In an attempt to perpetuate the memory of Will Rogers, the commission determined that if the services of the lodge extended to benefit all people in entertainment, it would be a significant memorial to the man who loved all mankind. The Will Rogers Commission’s corporation name was changed to the Will Rogers Memorial Fund and the hospital was named the “The Will Rogers Hospital.”
“Henceforth it will be known as the Will Rogers Memorial Hospital, and it will become a permanent monument in memory of the popular humorist-philosopher, as a haven for unfortunate members of the entertainment industry to which he devoted his life.”
This announcement launched the first Will Rogers Audience Collections in movie theatres. The appeal trailer created for this featured Irvin S. Cobb, Shirley Temple, May Robinson, Lowell Thomas and Bing Crosby who sang Will Rogers’ favorite song “Home on the Range.” Audience collections soon became the main source of funds for the hospital. Today, the Summer Theatrical Public Service Announcement remains the main source of funding.
During the 50s and 60s, the Will Rogers Memorial Fund broadened its activities to include a wider range and focus. A teaching and training program for medical research was created in 1962 and continues today through Will Rogers’ fellowship programs. During this period, pulmonary research became a primary concern. Doctors and scientists were encouraged to study the complex problems associated with lung diseases, especially tuberculosis. These scientific investigations yielded dramatic results, culminating in the discovery of a cure for tuberculosis. Ironically, finding a treatment for TB greatly diminished the number of patients at the hospital, leading to its closing in 1975.
Shortly thereafter, the Board of Directors chose to expand the Fund horizon with the creation of a nationwide preventive health education campaign. As the public’s need for health education increased, so did the need for a more centralized location. In 1977, the Will Rogers Institute was established in White Plains, New York, on the grounds of the Burke Rehabilitation Hospital. Will Rogers could utilize Burke’s resources, its facilities for patient care, and lease a building for Will Rogers’ laboratories and office space. Will Rogers Hospital achieved prominence by sponsoring annual summer teaching and training programs. Visiting research investigators would share their projects with groups of visiting students who they instructed in research development.
The public health education campaign remains an important factor in our ongoing mission to provide vital pulmonary health, fitness and nutrition information. The Institute is one the country’s largest suppliers of public service announcements for television, cable and radio. Featuring celebrities from stage, film, and television, these messages serve to reinforce Will Rogers’ complete involvement in the field of pulmonary medicine and public information.
Today, the Will Rogers Institute funds four acclaimed research hospitals and nine fellowships across the United States and is located in Los Angeles, California. The Institute is making strides every day in understanding, treating, and curing pulmonary diseases and disorders. Dr. Edward Crandall, Will Rogers Institute Medical Advisor, states,
“There are 25 million people in the United States who are known to suffer from a lung disorder. The Institute allows our research scientists to study how the lung works at its most basic levels. What we learn results in new treatment for very serious lung diseases and ultimately provides better health care for everybody.”
From our beginnings as a lodge for entertainers with tuberculosis, to the modern-day organization striving to help individuals and families through health, education and research, the Institute continues to embrace and enhance Will Rogers’ humanitarian spirit.