Lee Bellows stands between the rodeo pen and the grandstand crowd going through a comedy bit, one that had pyrotechnics bursting out the seat of his pants as the final punch line.
The crowd laughs, and applauds.
That means Bellows has once again done his job. He has kept the audience happy during a lull in the action of the rodeo.
It is a job he is practiced as achieving with a half century of experience behind the face paint of being a rodeo clown.
“I was 12 when I first put on the face paint,” he said during a relaxed interview at his camper Thursday between evening shows of the Painted Hand Casino Counting Coup Rough Stock Rodeo.
Bellows, 64, said for him rodeo has simply been part of his life, almost from day one.
“I came from a rodeo family so I was following the clown around tormenting him right from the beginning,” he said, adding rodeo “was my Dad’s favourite thing,” so they were regularly at events “helping out in the back.”
By the time Bellows, who has lived most of his life at Moose Jaw, was about 16 he was fighting the bulls, taking on the role of protecting the cowboys tossed to the arena floor by the angry critters.
“Fighting bulls is what I really wanted to do more than anything else,” he said, adding at the start he was basically an emergency fill-in to start with. “When I was probably 19 a fella came and hired me for a season, then I was on the road most of the time … The first time I remember actually getting hired was in the old Regina stadium in the late sixties.”
Bellows said it was a case of learning the trade on the road
“There were no schools for such things in my day. You had to find someone to help you get started,” he said.
“My hero was a solid bullfighter and comedy clown by the name of Dale Greenwood from Cartwright, North Dakota. I followed Dale around and I think he figured that if I was going to torment him, he might as well get some work out of me.”
It was a different era, added Bellows.
“It was a different time. When we got to the border, He would just say, I got a dumb Canuck kid with me and the border guy would just laugh, and away we would go,” he said.
Unlike most rodeo performers Bellows had a real world job too, working with the Department of Agriculture. He said the job meant a lot of rushed miles every week.
“I’d pound it home Monday morning,” he said, but added he knew the real job was important. “It gave me the security to look after my family. This rodeoing was gravy.”
The job was also something his father suggested he pursue.
“Dad said ‘this rodeoing is wonderful, but you’ve got to look after things too’,” he said, noting he and his wife have three children between them, all of whom have chosen other career paths.
“They were all played out on rodeo,” he said. “By the time they were in their teens they wanted to stay home. Obviously it’s not for everybody. If you don’t love this you get tired of the road.”
In Bellows case the love affair has never waned. Rodeo became “a hobby that got way out of hand,” he said.
And Bellows just kept pursuing his hobby year after year.
“I’ve lasted longer than all my heroes,” he admitted, adding he looked up to “guys like Quail Dobbs from Oklahoma and Wick Peth from Washington” who “were the guys that I studied on.”
Bellows said he did think of retirement once. “I remember making a real attempt to quit in 1971. I’d had enough -- but it didn’t take.”
Bellows said he moved to Winnipeg that year, and thought that would take him away from rodeo.
“I got out there and found out they had rodeo,” he said.
It was a new sport in Manitoba back then. Bellows’ membership card in the Manitoba association was number 100. At the time they were only riding cows, with no bullfighters to allow for bulls.
“They were just thrilled to death to see me,” he said, adding he was quickly back in the face paint fighting bulls and clowning.
In the early days a bullfighter and a clown were generally one and the same, with event organizers wanting a funny man as much as someone to protect the bull riders, said Bellows.
“You had to be funny to get the jobs,” he said. “Whoever was good at comedy was going to get the jobs.”
Fighting bulls was certainly different from being funny. It was a deadly serious role where a missed step could signal severe injury for both Bellows and the fallen cowboy.
“When you fight bulls it’s an inside feeling,” he said, adding he measured success by getting through a rodeo “with nobody hurt.”
While putting himself between a bull’s horns and a cowboy sprawled in the dirt was his job, Bellows said he never let the life-saving aspect of his role get into his head too much.
“I never really got too deep into thinking about the life saving thing,” he said, adding “you could tell by the crowd reaction that you done good. Not much was said, maybe a hand shake or a pat on the back.”
Bellows added he wasn’t completely successful every night.
“You can’t do this job without getting hurt,” he said. He said he has never dwelled on the bumps, bruises and broken bones, pointing proudly to his right arm and declaring it had never been broken.
“I will tell you I’ve been really lucky,” he said.
Bellows did admit initially his wife worried when he got ran over, but soon accepted it, adding she often noted things such as “’you looked just like a frog hopping above the dust’,” he said with a smile.
Bellows said when fighting bulls he tried not to think too much about what bull and rider was in the chute.
“When I was fighting bulls I didn’t look at the program,” he said, adding if he did the tendencies of a bull to do certain things might get into his head. “There are some rotten buggers. If you let them get in your head they will … I let it be spontaneous.”
Bellows said rodeo is different today too.
“They (cowboys) tend to be a little more athletic,” he said, adding they come to the arena trained by rodeo schools and even college scholarships. In the past cowboys learned “through the school of hard knocks,” he said.
Over the years the two roles diverged and as Bellows started to slow down when it came to fighting bulls, he evolved into a full time clown.
“When you start losing a step you better get funny,” he said, adding the transition wasn’t that hard because in the early years he had done both. “… The comedy has carried me a lot farther.”
Bellows said he takes clowning seriously, keeping a book where he lists what bits he performs in each town, not wanting to repeat them for about five years.
“If it stays fresh for the crowd it’s better,” he said.
The role of clown has evolved too. Today he wears a chord less microphone, something he said he was initially “scared of”.
The microphone means he now does his own patter for his skits. In the early days he did pantomime and the announcer related what he was doing to the audience.
Bellows said he is always working on new material.
“You’re trying to come up with different things,” he said, adding he keeps up on current events which he often incorporates into shows to keep the comedy current.
As for retirement, Bellows has no plans to stop, although he admitted he has few, if any goals, left to achieve.
“My bucket list is just about full,” he said. “I got to work Calgary (the Stampede). I got to go to Australia (to clown). I’ve done all kinds of finals. I’ve done Agribition (in Regina).
“When I think back that’s pretty darned good.”
Bellows said the trip to Australia has a Yorkton connection. He got a call from a promoter ‘Down Under’ who said a friend of his was visiting relatives in the city and saw Bellows perform. “He said he told him “you have to have this guy’,” he said.
Initially Bellows balked, but finally consented.
“It was one rodeo, one day,” he said, adding the Melbourne event was billed as Australia versus the world, with cowboy teams from New Zealand, Brazil and Canada also taking part.
The event was held at the Rod Laver Arena in front of some 20,000 fans.
“It was full, and they were having fun,” said Bellows, who added it was still “23-hours in a plane for one performance.”
The road has certainly been long. Bellows said he has clowned from Vancouver Island to Ontario and most places in between.
“It was a lot of finagling to figure it out,” he said, noting he was on the long trips and juggling his job for years.
Now he concentrates on Saskatchewan and Manitoba, keeping the trips home shorter.
Asked what he hoped to be remembered for when he is finished, Bellows was humble in his desire.
“That I was a descent entertainer,” he said, adding rodeo is more than a bull fighter, or clown. “… That I was part of a team, that I did my job well as part of the product.”
So when will he put on the face paint for a last time? Bellows said he’ll leave that to others.
“They’re going to tell me. They’re going to stop calling,” he said, adding with a grin “if I can’t climb in the barrel it’ll be kind of obvious …
“When I completely quit I don’t know what I’ll do.”