Our 28th year of publishing

Published October 12, 2021

They clown around in a rodeo arena

By John Toth / The Bulletin

I have gone to more rodeos and fairs while living in Brazoria County than anywhere else. It’s safe to say that almost everything I have learned about fairs has been gained in this county.

Almost everything, because I covered the 1979 Matagorda County Fair for the Daily Tribune. That was the first fair I ever attended. I was a rookie reporter just out of college, and I soaked it up like a sponge.
There were several interesting rodeo events I wrote about, but one of my favorites was writing about a rodeo clown. I interviewed him between shows.

I think his name was Salt or Pepper, or maybe Salt and Pepper. I’m going back a few decades. I questioned him about how he got into this business and what thrill he received running from a 2,500-pound bull after getting its attention.

“The thrill is running from them,” he said. I lost the article a long time ago, but I remember that quote.
The rodeo clown has the responsibility of entertaining the crowd during the slow period and to distract the bull and protect the riders after their dismount. They are also called barrelmen. This young writer, who grew up in concrete jungles, was all ears.

What made him get into this line of work? He grew up on a ranch. As a child, he watched clowns work rodeo arenas. He wanted to try his hand at it. Some people watch pilots, firemen and police officers and are inspired. He was inspired by rodeo clowns.

There are easier ways to make money, but he was good at it and loved the adrenalin rush as the bull got closer. A few times, the rubber barrel saved his - well, you know.

How long would he do it? As long as his body could take it. I would guess that he hung it up a long time ago. Or, maybe not. Some barrelmen won’t quit until the very end.

He gave me some tips on how to become a rodeo clown, but my career path took me in a different direction. He said aspiring clowns need to get in shape because it is hard physical work. It helps to work on a ranch, he added, but there are rodeo clown schools that teach the profession.

You can probably Google them now. In 1979, you would have had to look them up in a phone book.
He became an apprentice and learned his craft from a veteran rodeo clown. Networking with rodeo and fair organizers helped a lot, he said. He worked as much as he wanted. While it is tempting to work a lot, the body has to heal also, so time off is important.

The pay - well, it improves with time. Today, full-time rodeo clowns make about $50,000 a year. Back in those days, it was a lot less, but new cars didn’t cost $40,000, either, so it’s all relative.

Clowns have to provide their own equipment and pay for their travel and lodging, so that has to be deducted. And, enjoy being on the road all the time because that’s what rodeo clowns do.

If you get really good, you can challenge Flint Rasmussen for the title of the most famous rodeo clown in the world. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association named him Clown of the Year eight times.

In 2009 at age 41, he suffered a heart attack, healed up and went right back in the arena with only two limitations - he had to wear a heart monitor and take a break when his heart rate got above 140 bpm (beats per minute).

I tried to find out if he’s retired by now, since he should be about 62, but none of the research I did for this piece had any information about that. He does have an interesting program on YouTube where he talks about the rodeo business.

I did find that there are several rodeo clowns who work into their 60s. And then there was 83-year-old Lecile Harris, the rodeo clown who finished his performances in 2020 at the 55th Annual Dixie National and Rodeo Livestock Show in Jackson, Miss., went to bed, fell asleep and died.

They are a special breed, and you can see rodeo clowns in action at the Brazoria County Fair. When you watch the clowns hamming it up at this year’s rodeo, watch their every move. They are designed to entertain and protect the riders. They make it look easy, but one mistake can result in grave consequences.

Included in this paper, dear reader, is our annual Brazoria County Fair section, which I put together with the greatest care, as I have done every year since we started The Bulletin.

This is my 28th fair section for The Bulletin. I consider it a privilege to construct this puzzle each year. This is actually the 29th special fair issue I have done overall. I also produced the Matagorda County Fair special section in 1979. That was my claim to fame at the paper. Those were fun days as a whole new world opened up to me.

I was selected for the project because my editor hated doing it, and I bragged during my job interview that I had production experience. I also learned that the newest kid in the newsroom usually got stuck with the pile of work that came with it.

That’s how I met a group of great and talented people who made the fair possible each year. I enjoyed doing that section as much as I enjoyed producing this one. It never gets old - like rodeo clowning.

(John looks forward to hearing from you on this subject. Send comments to john.bulletin@gmail.com. You can even send an old-fashioned letter to: The Bulletin, P.O. Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516.)