Clowning around in arena is a century-old tradition
By Holly Hollman
It’s a job that requires a man to be a buffoon and a hero.
That’s how western author Gail Hughbanks Woerner of Austin, Texas, describes rodeo clowns.
“On one side, they act like fools and make fun of themselves, while on the other side, during the bull riding, they have got to be a hero,” she said.
Rodeo clowns got their start a century ago in the early 1900s. If a rodeo show paused while workers repaired a fence or revived a cowboy, patrons tended to leave, said Woerner. “The owners were tired of seeing fans walk away and started paying cowboys to entertain the crowd between competitions.”
Woerner researched the history for her book “Fearless Funnymen: The History of the Rodeo Clown.” Woerner also holds a rodeo clown reunion to honor retired clowns and bullfighters.
She found that, at first, cowboys entertained by making fun of themselves. They would ride a bronc backwards or tie shovels on a horse’s tail.
To get more laughs, the cowboys wore fedoras and oversized old coats, she said. That evolved into the crazier attire that rodeo lovers expect today.
Rodeo clowns got the added job of bullfighting in the 1920s in Texas when Brahma bulls were introduced for bull riding.
“They had a nasty attitude and make for one heck of a ride,” Woerner said of Brahmas. “But owners realized with these type bulls, they needed somebody to help distract them to get the cowboys out of the arena safely.”
That somebody ended up being the rodeo clown. Imagine shooing a 1,600-pound or heavier enraged bull away from a thrown cowboy and doing it without protection.
Woerner said in the late 1930s to early 1940s, rodeo clown Jasbo Fulkerson “got tired of being run over” and created a wooden barrel that could hide him.
“If a bull did hit it, it would break apart, and he would have to repair it, but at least it was some protection,” she said.
Other clown/bullfighters started improving on the design. One added hand cranks so he could roll across the arena, Woerner said.
“At one rodeo, a bull hit the barrel so hard, it fell over, and the clown hit his head on a crank and got knocked out,” she said.
Back then, the barrels had bottoms. Woerner said another clown who got trapped in a barrel by a bull designed one that didn’t have a bottom so he could scramble out.
Today, clowns like “Mighty” Mike Wentworth of Louisville, Ky., scurry into the arena between competitions and flounce around dressed not only in cutoff jeans with red suspenders, but sometimes in an inflatable female costume. Wentworth has skits that involve rubber chickens, exploding garbage cans and trick cameras.
Wentworth heckles the rodeo announcer and people he knows in the audience.
When the bull riding begins, he taunts the bulls by calling them names or waves at them from the safety of his steel barrel lined with foam.
Despite the comedy aspects, being a rodeo clown is dangerous.
“I’ve never been seriously hurt, but anytime you get into an arena, you’re taking a big risk,” Wentworth said.
Woerner said rodeo clowns/bullfighters commonly suffer from cuts and broken bones.
“Relatively few are killed in the arena,” she said. “Most are killed traveling by being in wrecks. They travel so much, they get tired and sleepy while driving.”
The pay, at least, is worth the danger and buffoonery, according to Wentworth, who works 10 months out of the year.
Clowns negotiate their contracts with rodeo companies. Wentworth said a clown can make between $1,200 and $2,000 for a two-show weekend performance.
Wentworth at least knows he’ll go home with money in his pockets. Those who compete and lose, like bull riders, go home empty-handed.
“I used to ride bulls,” Wentworth said. “I was pretty quick to discover entertaining was the way to go careerwise.”
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