Sunday night, beneath floodlights at the Hamel Rodeo on the northwestern edge of the metro, all eyes were on Texas bull rider Dustin Bowen as he straddled a couple thousand pounds of breathing beef named Swappin Paint.
Only rarely does ol’ Paint allow himself to be ridden, and chances were good on this night he would launch the boots-and-jeans clad Bowen into thin air before he could record a score-earning eight-second ride.
Not far away, in the arena, facing Bowen and Swappin Paint, Donnie Landis stood in a padded aluminum barrel, an oversized cowboy hat on his head, his nose a Bozo-like red bubble, his face painted the colors of a clown.
In fact, Landis is a clown, and as such, day after day, year after year, he crisscrosses the nation mixing cornpone jokes with the mud, blood, guts and beer that underpin America’s most proletariat and, some say, toughest sport: rodeo.
Like most rodeo clowns, Landis also doubles as a barrel man during bull-riding events, and he was poised now to protect Bowen when he dismounted Swappin Paint — willingly or not.
Bull riders flung to the ground far from the stepladder safety of arena fences or bucking chutes often seek refuge behind barrel men. It’s then a bull might beeline for Landis, head-butt his barrel and airmail it and its occupant skyward — all to onlookers’ wild delight.
“Bulls are tougher today than when I was a kid,” Landis said. “The breeding of bulls is a lot better. It used to be you’d get on someone’s backyard bull and try to ride it for eight seconds. Today you’re getting on someone’s athlete and trying to stay on for eight seconds. There’s a difference.”
Now 56 — old for a rodeo clown; ancient for a barrel man — Landis, of Gooding, Idaho, has been around rodeos since he was a toddler. His great-grandfather was a pickup man (the guy who dislodges bronc riders from their horses), his grandfather rode bucking horses, and his dad ran the rodeo table.
“Dad rode all the rough stock, raised bulls and was a rodeo producer, a rodeo clown and a bullfighter,” Landis said. “I learned from him that a rodeo clown has to do everything — tell jokes, work the barrel and most importantly save lives.”
Sometimes his life is the one needing saving.
At a rodeo in Marysville, Calif., some years back, a bull without horns smashed into Landis and his barrel before sticking his head into the top of the barrel and bringing his slobbering visage to within inches of Landis’ decidedly unsmiling clown face.
“That bull got his head stuck in the barrel,” Landis said. “He lifted me overhead, with me upside down, and ran around the arena. That’s when I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to be a rodeo clown anymore.’ ”
Earlier this month, Landis worked a rodeo in Park Rapids, Minn., at which one of two bullfighters was injured, forcing Landis to reprise one of the sport’s most dangerous roles.
A bullfighter’s job is to ensure a bull rider, once dismounted, doesn’t get stomped or gored. Most frightening is when a rider’s hand becomes stuck in the bucking rope, connecting him to the frantic animal by an arm and tossing him like a rag doll.
It’s then a bullfighter must throw himself into the fray.
“I’m 56, too old for fighting bulls, but I did it” he said. “Getting a bull away from a rider requires certain skills. You really have to understand livestock to do it.”
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Growing up in the San Jose, Calif., area, Landis rode rough stock into his 20s, preferring bulls to broncs.
Eventually, clowning appealed to him, in part, he said, because the rodeo funny man always drew a check, whereas bronc and bull riders were paid only when they won.
In the years since, he has reached the pinnacle of his profession. He’s clowned the World Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas twice. Also he has worked the Dodge National Circuit Finals twice, the Calgary Stampede in Canada and the Houston Livestock Show at the Astrodome.
Many of today’s rough stock riders, he believes, are different from those he knew when he was young.
“A kid used to ride broncs or bulls because he grew up around them,” he said. “They would break horses, for example, and if they got bucked off, they had to walk home. So they learned not to get bucked off.
“Nowadays, a lot of rough stock riders don’t have that kind of hands-on experience with animals. So they rely on their athletic ability. They go to the gym to work out. In some cases, they’re more athletes than they are cowboys.”
Sunday night in Hamel, erupting from the chute, Swappin Paint bucked to his right, kicking mud, then bucked again and again. Slow as a lifetime, eight seconds came and went, ending with Bowen still aboard and a winning score of 89.
But when Bowen dismounted, he slipped under Swappin Paint. “I just got a little overexcited getting off, and I let go, and got stepped on. But it’s all right.”
Swappin Paint exited the arena without incident, and Landis took a breath.
The next day Landis would be on the road to Clinton, Minn., where, amid the mud, blood, guts and beer of still another rodeo, he’d invite bulls to head-butt him in a barrel and tell cornpone jokes.
“I’m going to do it until I die, and if it happens in an arena, that might not be too bad,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s not often you hear about a rodeo clown getting killed.
“I’ve had quite a few injuries over the years, however. It’s not like I’ve been a pool sweep or something my whole life.’’