Rodeo clowns protect cowboys, entertain crowds

Rodeo clowns protect cowboys, entertain crowds

They have names like Twister, Speed Trap and Rebel Yell.

These bulls show no mercy to the men like Pumpkintown Frank and Jeremy Choate.

Lucky for bull riders like Choate, Frankie “Pumpkintown” Smith and his crew of rodeo clowns are on the arena dirt keeping the bull riders safe … better yet, alive.

Andy Burelle, a 9-year rodeo clown veteran, is one of the three members of the bullfighting team in the 112th Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show. However, the term “clown” is used loosely for Burelle and his counterparts, Smith and Blue Jeanes. The men prefer the term “bullfighter,” as they are the ones who look eye-to-eye with a ground-stamping, dust-snorting steer.

“There’s no time to be afraid in the ring,” Burelle said. “You just have to go on instincts.”

Even though fear is not a direct element, there are moments of shock for these entertainers.

See the clowns and cowboys in action:

“I blew my knee out about five years ago, so I wear this brace,” Burelle said. Last week he took a trip to the emergency room after getting stepped on by a 1,900-pound bull.

In the arena, bull riders have the option to wear a helmet and a protective vest while gripping a bucking bull, but for the trio in brightly-colored clothing, there is a thin plastic chest protector and guts keeping them secure.

During last Saturday’s matinee rodeo performance, Burelle had his pants stripped from his body by the horns of a bull named Ultimate Warrior. However, that close call was not nearly what Burelle has experienced in this year’s first go-rounds.

“I have already been knocked down four or five times this rodeo,” he said.

Smith takes on the roll as the ringleader for his team of bullfighters in the Will Rogers Coliseum. His 12 years of experience have given him the honor of being the main entertainer of the group and also one of the lead daredevils.

When the bull riding event comes to a close, Smith, a native of Pumpkintown, S.C., has his moment in the spotlight. In a fashion similar to a Niagara Falls jumper, Smith climbs inside a red barrel and takes punishing hits from the rodeo’s hard stock.

“It’s like being in a Volkswagen and getting run over by a freight train,” the Smith, 43, said. “You hope you’ve got a good guy behind you when you’re in (the barrel).”

Before he took center stage in the dirt oval with flashy face paint and an oversized foam cowboy hat, Smith was a bareback rider in South Carolina.

“I had more desire than talent in riding,” Smith said. “My friends used to laugh at my form, and I just went from that to clowning.”

The mission for these bullfighters is simple: protect the cowboy.

But when rodeo Production Manager Neal Gay’s legendary bucking bulls come out of the chute, there is no real way to figure out how the animal will react to clowns and a rider spurring its back.

“You never know what the bull will do, and they are animals so they all act differently,” Burelle said.

Through teamwork and trust, the clowns manage to protect each other, as well as the riders on the floor.

“I’m here to keep the riders safe,” Burelle, a first-generation bullfighter, said. “It’s better than a real job and you have got to love it.”

While safety is paramount, the secondary goals of these men is to entertain. This is where Smith shines in the spotlight of the arena.

Not only does Smith go toe-to-toe with bucking stock, he also clog dances to the tune of the rodeo’s big band, all for the sake of a few laughs from the audience.

“When I walk in, I see there’s folks that ain’t laughed or smiled in years, and a good laugh helps them,” Smith said.

Getting laughs and taking his lumps is all part and parcel for the career that Smith began when he earned $600 for one weekend of work.

Some rodeos require up to a $500 entry fee for bull riders to get a chance to saddle up on a bucking bull. Unfortunately for the riders, payout only comes to the top finishers after the final go-round.

“Some of these guys are riding to make money to help take care of a family,” Burelle said.

As a clown, the rodeo is means of work every week and a constant salary, even when public address announcer Bob Tallman refers to Smith’s career as “everything your parents never wanted you to do.”

Smith remembers his first weekend as a clown and the man who hired him saying there was still hope for a future in the field.

“He told me keep going and you’ll make it,” Smith said.

Though Smith and Burelle have only been working together since the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show began Jan. 11, the two manage to put on a performance every night with a flare and style that looks like the two have been clowning around for years.