Humor is defined by the dictionary as “the quality of being amusing or funny”. How often have you been affected by humor? How often have you tried to be funny to relax a serious situation, or been relieved when someone else interjected humor in to a tense moment? Humor will truly ‘soothe the savage beast’ in all of us.
When thinking of ‘all things funny, the rodeo clown is an example of the need for levity in a tense situation. The very first rodeo clowns, around the early part of the twentieth century, were developed out of a need for someone to keep rodeo spectators in their seats by entertaining them while a lull in the program happened. “I’ll pay you if you’ll go in the arena and keep the audience’s attention while we take care of this problem,” was the request of a rodeo promoter to a nearby cowboy. Whether the delay was a fence repair or a contestant knocked senseless the request was spontaneous. Was it the offer of money that encouraged the cowboy to entertain? Or was it the chuckles and guffaws heard from the crowd that spurred that cowboy on to think creatively and find more ways to make people laugh?
More than likely it was the money, but once the sound of laughter reached the entertaining cowboy’s ears, he wanted to hear it again and again. The money paid to these laugh-getters has never been enough, but the rodeo clown will perform day after day, in spite of injury, long distance travels, just to entertain and hear the positive response from the audience.
Later, during the 1920s, when the Brahma bull was introduced to the bull riding event the rodeo producers soon discovered the renegade was a menace to the bull riders, regardless of whether the contestant made the whistle or was bucked off. Getting to safety without getting injured by being stomped or gored by the bull was difficult. Who did the rodeo promoter point at and say, “You keep that bull’s attention until the rider gets to the fence.” Yes, you are right, the rodeo clown. Until that time the job of a rodeo clown was strictly to get laughs, to make a fool of himself by any means – riding backwards on a bronc, doing pratfalls, or simply teasing the cowboys. “AND NOW YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT……??????????”
It didn’t take long after the first rodeo clown got laughs that spectators started showing up at rodeos expecting to see and be entertained by the rodeo clown. A new profession evolved right from the middle of the rodeo arena. Once the responsibility of protecting the bull rider was added to his job description the rodeo clown was one of the most paradoxical professions in the world.
What makes a person decide to be a rodeo clown? The reasons are many, and quite diverse. These ‘characters’ come with all types of personalities, but the one common denominator is that they are passionate about what they do – they love to make people laugh, they enjoy entertaining and they are dedicated to saving cowboys from harm. Today rodeo clowns are specialists and either perform as a bullfighter, a cowboy protector, a barrelman and/or a funnyman.
One successful rodeo clown and bullfighter, Karl Doering, saw a need to honor and gather retired rodeo clowns, once they had finished their years in the rodeo arena. He knew that often the rodeo clown/bullfighter was taken for granted. Some made their diverse job look so easy it was not unusual for spectators and cowboys to not realize the time and effort put in to preparing and performing at rodeos, not to mention the injuries they often sustained, and the need to continue to work in the hazardous profession, in spite of injury and pain. No work – no pay.
The time was the early 1970s and Karl’s project was vast. It took much time as well as creativity. He didn’t know every rodeo clown out there, and many had all ready retired when Karl entered the arena. Some did their rodeo work in other parts of the country, and often they would pass in the night, heading from one rodeo to the next. Also the Rodeo Cowboys Association, at that time, did not keep records on retired cowboys and/or rodeo clowns. Most of his work was done by telephone and word-of-mouth, which mounted in huge phone bills.
The first Reunion was held in 1974 during the Umpqua Valley RoundUp in Roseburg, Oregon. This was Karl’s hometown and the rodeo needed a ‘shot in the arm’. What better than to bring a bunch of retired rodeo clowns, in their familiar costumes and make-up, and honor them for their years spent in the rodeo world. Karl became President of the rodeo committee and improved the Roseburg rodeo to become the third largest in the state, which was quite an undertaking. He worked diligently to get numerous perks from local and national sponsors for the rodeo clown honorees. Approximately twenty retired rodeo clowns came. They were honored with a banquet, special awards, a dance, and not only did they participate during the rodeo, they rode in the parade in grand fashion. They were taken on a deep sea fishing trip, out of Coos Bay, on the coast of Oregon. A clown-like golf game at the local Veterans Administration golf course was held, followed by a steak dinner, then a visit to the patients at the VA hospital. Dressed in their hilarious costumes and make-up these characters would often jump in bed with a patient, confusing the nurses and doctors, to the patients delight.
Word spread and the next Reunion at Roseburg was held in 1977 with thirty retired funnymen showing up. The same successful format used at the first gathering was in place again. Added was the idea to offer “Time of Your Life Packages” which allowed a few rodeo dignitaries to be part of the celebration. Several notable rodeo committee members took this ‘challenge’ and became an integral part of the Reunion. To name a few were Bill Shaw of Pendleton, Oregon rodeo committee; Frank Gwinn of Walla Walla, Washington, and Jack Saulls, of Moses Lake, Washington, who always donated a shotgun or rifle to be drawn for by the attending laugh-getters. Rex Allen, popular western singer, was Master of Ceremonies for several Reunions, and Larry Mahan and his band, played for the dance in Roseburg, on one occasion.
In total, six Reunions were held in Roseburg ending in 1989. Doering, the ramrod and originator with the dream, and the get-up-and-go attitude to make it happen, died of cancer a few months after the 1983 Reunion. His wife, Kay, took over the Presidency of the Rodeo Committee, as well as hostess of the Cowboy Clown Reunion. Wes Curtis and Mac Berry, former rodeo clowns and residents in the area, followed in the Doerings’ footsteps to make sure the Reunion continued.
Jack Saulls, of Moses Lake, Washington, played host in 1991 to the Reunion. Jack, a long-time committeeman in the Columbia River Circuit, held a banquet for the honorees, a day trip by bus to Grand Coulee Dam, as well as a funnyman golf game, Those attending also were part of the rodeo each night.
The eighth Reunion made a big change. It moved from the northwest to the central part of the United States, and was held in Guthrie, Oklahoma, during the ‘89er Days, held to celebrate the land rush in to Oklahoma in 1889. In addition to the rodeo that was held nightly at the famous Lazy E Arena, many other venues were part of the festivities, and the honorees enjoyed it all. They also toured the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and held a Clown-Mule Race at Remington Park Race Track in Oklahoma City. This was my first experience working on the preparation for this hilarious event. I worked with Wayne Cornish and Bobby Clark, former rodeo clowns from Oklahoma, to make sure it would follow in the footsteps of the northwestern predecessors and became the Chairman.
Since then Reunions have been held at Colorado Springs, CO, during the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo in 1995; at Santa Fe, NM, rodeo in 1997; The Springdale AR rodeo in 1999; back to the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo in Colorado Springs for their 60th anniversary in 2000; the Days of ’76 in Deadwood, SD, in 2002; Stephenville, TX, Cowboy Capital of the World Rodeo in 2004; and the historic Pendleton OR RoundUp in 2006. This year marks the sixteenth gathering of the Rodeo Clown Reunion and it is being held at Dodge City Days, in Kansas, July 30th through August 3rd.
The Rodeo Clown Reunion truly adds much color, and laughs, to any rodeo setting. Seeing so many ‘characters’ in their familiar make-up and garb is quite a colorful attention-getter. The honorees ventured to Cripple Creek, while in Colorado, where they frequented the casinos and had the people on the street in stitches. The Clown – Mule Race, held in the arena at Santa Fe, using tall mules and short donkeys, was a hoot! The pink Cadillac convertible adorned with steer horns on the hood and a musical tooting horn, full with rowdy funnymen cruising Deadwood’s main street is unforgettable. The Springdale parade with these characters enticing pretty young spectators to hop on their float was memorable. The visit to Sun Ridge Retirement Home in Pendleton, where honoree Monk Carden, (age 97 at the time) lives, for a special supper a musical sing-along with the residents will long be remembered. The laugh-getting group was thrilled when they were chosen to be remembered by the Stephenville Walk of Fame, where a star was placed in their honor, in the downtown sidewalk. These are just a few of the highlights of past Reunions.
The Rodeo Clown Reunion has been the inspiration for four television programs and two videos during it’s thirty-four year existence. Good Morning America did a segment on the group in 1980. Ramzy Telley, originator of the video, American Bullfighter and American Bullfighter II came to Guthrie and interviewed the attendees. National Geographic sent a reporter and cameraman to Colorado Springs, in 1995, to do an hour long television special. Two years later CNN had a film crew follow the honorees around Santa Fe. The Cowboy Program on the Outdoor Channel (now Versus) sent a film crew to do a 30 minute program on the Reunion at Pendleton RoundUp.
The goal of the Rodeo Clown Reunion is to honor these fearless funnymen of the past while they are still able to visit with their fans and know how much joy they have brought to rodeo fans and how much they are appreciated by the cowboys and fans. At the same time it is the goal of the Reunion to entertain the spectators and fans in the locale chosen to hold this unique experience. The honorees enjoy visiting with children and shut-ins, they do television and radio spots, they enjoy the flavor of the area and when it is over it is our hope the people of the area are glad they came to their town.
The true measure of a rodeo clown is the number of people they have made laugh and those they have entertained. It is also the number of cowboys they have saved from harm’s way, sometimes even death, at their own expense, which has often resulted in injury to themselves. When these oldsters come to a Reunion their legs may be a bit shaky and their reactions are much slower than when they performed. But their zest for living and their humor is still intact. The enjoyment of a fan when they visit with these bull-baiters and laugh-getters mingled with the pleasure the honorees get from the association with the crowd is a win – win situation all around. Come to Dodge City Days and enjoy the Rodeo Clown Reunion. You’ll be glad you did.
KARL DOERING, CREATOR OF THE RODEO CLOWN REUNION
Karl Doering and his brother were raised by their mother on a ranch in southern Oregon. Keeping the ranch in those days was a struggle, but they did manage to hang on in spite of the hardships. Karl was always a scrapper and a defender of the little guy. As a young man he worked very hard to keep commercial development from taking over the fertile farm land he loved. He even helped get a county commissioner, who believed as he did, elected. Tell Karl something couldn’t be done and he would prove you wrong.
He began his rodeo career riding bareback and bulls but quickly saw that his skill at entertaining crowds with his comedy and bullfighting style were more to his liking. He spent twenty years on the U. S. and Canadian rodeo circuits. He always had a cigar and wore woolly chaps. His signature act was riding a bareback horse with a suitcase full of chickens while wearing a fur coat and angora chaps. He also had a Model A Bucking Ford which always got a lot of attention. In those days the rodeo clown was expected to show up a few days before the rodeo began and help with the publicity which Karl always did, and was good at it. At the end of each rodeo they would turn loose the meanest bull in the string to ‘play’ with the rodeo clown. A tribute to Karl’s success in his career were the many return performances at leading rodeos, which included Calgary Stampede, Pendleton RoundUp and Omak Stampede. He was the only bullfighter selected for the first Canadian National Finals in Edmonton, Alberta. Karl has been inducted in to the Omak and Pendleton RoundUp Halls of Fame. He retired after the 1976 RoundUp at Pendleton.
Always a giving person, Karl sponsored a trophy rifle given to the Canadian Champion Bull Rider for many years. He wrote a column in the Rodeo Sports News magazine for a while entitled, Hornin’ In. He became the leader of the struggling Roseburg rodeo, which became the third largest in the state, under his direction. Karl, appreciating his career as a rodeo clown and bullfighter realized that once a laugh-getter’s career had ended often all contact with their rodeo friends ended, too. These hilarious ‘matadors’ went from being rodeo heroes to forgotten figures of the past. Karl thought, “What better way to honor these cowboy clowns and give the Roseburg Umpqua Valley RoundUp a shot in the arm than to have a Cowboy Clown Reunion during the event. And the Reunion was born!
When Karl died, after a long bout with cancer in 1983, the Roseburg newspaper, The News-Review, said about him, in part: “He was a cowboy, but a gentleman cowboy; tough as the well-worn boots he wore, but from an old school which taught that men don’t swear in front of ladies. His confidence in his toughness didn’t mean he was egotistic or overbearing. In fact, he was a modest, courteous man with others, who more often than not made himself the butt of the jokes he told with what one person who knew him called his ‘rusty-barbed-wire’ sense of humor.”
Karl’s impact was strong. His son, Greg, became a rodeo clown for ten years and still attends the Reunions. His wife, Kay, took over in his stead with the Roseburg rodeo and the Cowboy Clown Reunion, after his death. Friends, Wes Curtis and Mac Berry, continued the Reunion. Karl Doering’s legacy lives on every time an honoree at the Rodeo Clown Reunion signs an autograph and kibitzes with the fans. We shall be ever-grateful for this cowboy with a ‘rusty-barbed-wire’ wit and the fortitude to make the Reunion happen.
Learn more about the Rodeo Clown Reunion at http://www.rodeoattitude.com/dir_hd/gail/reunion.htm