Sunday, February 16, 2020

History of the Rodeo Clown

This week an icon in the PRCA rodeo passed away.

Lecile Harris (1937-2020), died in his sleep Wednesday night after the final show of the Dixie National Rodeo and Livestock Show in Mississippi, my home state. At 83 years young, Mr. Harris was still doing what he loved, being a rodeo clown. And he was good at it.

It was a shock to hear the news on Thursday morning, and it got me to thinking about the history of rodeo clowns.

When competitive rodeo became all the rage in the early 1900s, promoters hired cowboys to entertain the crowd between events. Prior to that, let’s just say the games and matches played out on the plains between cowboys matching skills and wits, there wasn’t really any need to “entertain” between the events that the cowboys themselves had come to see. But once there was a paying audience, those people wanted a lot of bang for their buck, and wanted to be entertained every second they were at the “show”. Much like the people at the medieval jousting matches and the Roman Coliseums.

The cowboys whose job it was to entertain the crowd started wearing oversized, baggy clothing, and some even painted their faces just as circus clowns do. The rodeo clown took a lot of cues from circus clowns and court jesters as their job—initially— was the same: to entertain the rowdy crowd. It wasn’t exactly dangerous… unless the crowd became unruly, I suppose.

But soon the crowds grew bored and wanted more danger and ill-tempered bulls were brought in for the bull-riding events. As most of us know, bull riders are only expected to stay on for 8 seconds and after that, that mean, ornery, I-will-trample-everything-in-my-path bull is out for blood.

[Photograph of Rodeo Clowns], photograph, June 24, 1959; ( accessed February 14, 2020), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Erath County Genealogical Society. 
So the rodeo clowns stepped up to distract the bulls from the rider so he could get to safety. Many times the clowns worked in pairs, and I’ve seen as many as three or four in the arena. In the 1930s, Jasbo Fulkerson introduced a wooden barrel as a barrier and a way to escape the enraged bull. These days, a heavy duty plastic barrel does the trick, but still, it all looks quite scary when you see a bull butting one of those things and you know a bullfighter is inside!

These men are professional athletes and the proper term for them is bullfighter all across the globe. Many still wear baggy bright clothes and all kinds of flashy things to get the bulls’ attention, but make no mistake, they are highly skilled at what they do. When a rider is injured or hung up, they risk their lives to free that rider. Honestly, they are some of the bravest, most skilled men I’ve ever seen in action.

In larger rodeos, there are bullfighters who are 100% focused on the bull, and then there’s the rodeo clown (sometimes called the barrelman) whose job is to poke fun at the bull, the riders, the other bullfighters and entertain the crowd, while also convincing everybody he’s the tough one out there in the ring. But even that seasoned old cowpoke who might be a bit over the hill has paid his dues, and at one time, he was the one with an angry bull breathing down his neck.

Such was the case with Lecile Harris. He started out wanting to ride bulls, but his tall, lanky frame wasn’t suited to the job. He fell into the job of bullfighter when another guy failed to show up one day, and the rest is history. He was a natural and was always a “class clown”, so he loved hamming it up for the crowd. At the age of 52, he was injured in the arena, which ended his career as a bullfighter, and he spent the next 30 plus years in the ring entertaining the crowds as the main attraction, the Rodeo Clown. Six decades in the ring, and he’d performed a few hours before he drew his last breath.

RIP, Lecile Harris.

Lecile Harris (1937-2020)

For more older photos of rodeo clowns, visit Lecile's FB page and scroll through the photos. Or go to Youtube and search for rodeo clowns or rodeo bullfighters to see some of these guys in action!

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  1. Pam, I am not familiar with Leclie Harris, but I'm familiar with rodeo clowns. I started attending rodeos back in 2005 and over those years the best rodeo clown I have seen is Rudy Burns. He was a fixture at the rodeo a friend of mine and I attended yearly for about 13 years, The Pioneer City Rodeo in Palestine IL. He was funny and even though his jokes were corny, the way in which he told them still made you laugh, He also made fun of current news events and politicians, making sure to do his homework on the ares's political celebrities, both local and statewide. And he'd get away with it. He retired a few years ago and was sorely missed when a new man took over. Rudy's shoes were hard to fill. To be still clowning into his 80s is quite an accomplishment for Mr. Harris. I'm sorry I never got to see him in action.

    1. Pam, I'm pretty sure I might have seen Rudy Burns at some point... and the first picture I used in this post with the pink hat has to be Rudy Burns. His trademark was the pink hat. Kinda cool that you'd be familiar with him.

  2. Thanks for posting! I'm amazed that Lecile worked in his 80's. We used to follow the PBR on television and so I know the names like Frank Newsome and Shorty Gorham, among some others.

    1. I read a bit about Frank Newsome. He was considered one of the best!

  3. I remember a clown at the fair before certain events as a child.

    1. The clowns were the highlight of the show for us kids, weren't they? Still is! :)

  4. Mrs. Hillman, with all do respect, I find it amazing that you have been around rodeos and have never heard or seen Lecile Harris?
    He is as iconic in the rodeo world as Freckles Brown, Jim Shoulders, Lane Frost, Larry Mahan and Ty Murray.
    He is the original, the innovator of the funny man, barrel man and entertainer in the history of rodeo.
    I am sorry you never saw him or heard of him because he is respected and loved in the arena of the industry.
    I'm very proud to say that I grew up watching him at rodeos as far back as I can remember and as I got older and rode bulls I was fortunate to competed in rodeos that he was working. I got a chance to meet him on a handful of occasions, and I can honestly say that he was one of the nicest and best men, I have ever had the opportunity to meet. 65 years he did what he was doing on the night he passed away, in his sleep.
    Lecile Harris was rodeo.

    1. Mr. Phipps, I think you misread my blog post or a comment in some way. :) I was privileged to see Lecile Harris in action, several times, but not as often as I'd liked, unfortunately. Thanks for stopping by and giving us a first-hand account of this amazing man who blessed the world of rodeo for so many years.