I’m writing this column from deep in the bowels of the Pioneer Memorial Theatre on the University of Utah campus, where I have just started rehearsals for my role in Pioneer Theatre Company’s “The Will Rogers Follies.” The show will be running from May 5-20, and I will be playing the small-but-pivotal role of Wiley Post.
I’m having way, way too much fun.
History buffs may remember that Post was the one-eyed pilot of the ill-fated aircraft that went down in Alaska and took the life of the good Post and his unlucky passenger, Will Rogers. In the show, I sit out in the audience and occasionally interrupt the action by jumping up and yelling, “Let’s go flying, Will!” It becomes something of a long-running joke until the end, when the audience grimly realizes what happens when Will finally takes me up on my offer.
During the original Broadway run of “The Will Rogers Follies,” the role of Post was long played by one David M. Lutken, who just so happens to also be playing the title role in the PTC production. Lutken is a dead ringer for the real-life Rogers, and he also went on several times when he was the understudy for the Broadway show. Having played Rogers in New York and in a number of subsequent productions, this is a role that is in Lutken’s blood. In many ways, it’s hard to tell where Lutken ends and Rogers begins.
But as well as Lutken knows Rogers, he has no shortage of stories of his time spent as Post. Those tales get especially colorful when he recounts the time after the producers decided to cast the Post role with a stream of different celebrity cameos. It was Lutken’s job to train these luminaries in the fine art of saying, “Let’s go flying, Will!” For some, it came naturally, and for others, it was a bit of a struggle. There was the one borscht-belt comedian who would say his one line and then turn to Lutken and ask, “Was that funny?” He was more than a little concerned that “Let’s go flying, Will” wasn’t the best of punch lines.
The list of Post cameos followed no rhyme or reason. One night Post was played by Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s Hamburgers, and another night, by David Dinkins, the then-mayor of New York. (“The lights went out on him and nobody could see him,” Lutken recalled.) Other nota'bles included Frank Gifford and Broadway legend John Raitt. (“He was the only one who knew his lines,” Lutken said.) But perhaps the most memorable Post in those days, at least according to Lutken’s resurrection, was when Post was played by none other than the Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash.1 comment on this story
It was in 1993, when Cash was in poor health, but that didn’t dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm for every word he said. His “Let’s go flying, Will” was still ably delivered in his distinct basso-profundo drawl, and the audience went wild every time he spoke. When it came time for the curtain call, there were calls for him to come out and perform a number after the show was over. Lutken was concerned that he wouldn’t be up to it, as he seemed tired and listless. But the Man in Black delivered.
“Just give me my guitar,” he said, “and I’ll be all right.”
He was as good as his word. Lutken remembers that all the exhaustion vanished the moment Cash put on his guitar and took to the stage and sang “Ring of Fire” to the delight of his fans.
Sadly, Cash won’t be at Pioneer Theatre Company. But Lutken will be, and so will I.
“Let’s go flying, Will!”
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.