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Oct. 23, 2006
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal


Our bumbling buckaroo learns the dangers of rodeo

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Click on the photos to enlarge them...

Rodeo clown Jason Balto, left, swats reporter Corey Levitan with a broom between bareback bronc riders at the Nevada Gay Rodeo at Horseman's Park.
Photos by Jane Kalinowsky.

Balto applies Levitan's makeup. Like members of KISS, rodeo clowns are expected to each have their own unique design.

Levitan and Balto scamper up the fence to avoid being trampled by a riderless bronc galloping at 35 mph.

Levitan is over the fence and galloping for the parking lot by the time Balto reaches the top.

Riderless broncs will try to avoid colliding with people. But being chased by other horses tends to preoccupy them.

Balto introduces Levitan to the steer he will later run for his life from. Balto's advice includes: "Never approach them from the front or they may gore you" and "Never back up or they may run over you."

Standing in the way of a charging bull is not all Ernest Hemingway cracked it up to be.

Today I'm a clown at the 10th annual Bighorn Rodeo at Horseman's Park. It's my job to protect cowboys from getting trampled by the wild animals they fall from.


What I didn't realize was how seriously this would conflict with my autonomic nervous system's job of protecting my future.

"Get over here!" yells my co-clown, Jason Balto, from the center of the arena. As soon as each animal is freed from its chute, I instinctively run for, then climb, the fence around the field's perimeter.

"There goes Corey again," says rodeo announcer Wayne Jakino.

This is the first rodeo I've been to, by the way, other than the drive in Beverly Hills.

"His feet didn't even touch the fence that time!" Balto adds.

I thought a gay rodeo would somehow be less dangerous, more full of show tunes, than the regular kind. (The Bighorn is organized by the Nevada Gay Rodeo Association.) For someone who's straight, however, I seem to be gayer than everyone here.

"You ain't straight," says horseman Mike Kraut, after overhearing me utter that last remark into my tape recorder.

Perhaps it's my Pippi Longstocking cutoffs.

In exchange for risking their lives, rodeo clowns receive abuse from the crowd, announcer and competitors, plus $100 to $225 per show, usually depending on their travel expenses.

Balto, 36, is originally from San Diego but drove his pickup truck from his current home in Phoenix. He started working in rodeo in 1993, behind the scenes, then switched to clowning two years ago.

"I've never had a desire to compete," he says, "but I always wanted to do something that would make an impact. And I guess making people laugh and putting myself in harm's way is my way of doing that."

The first gay rodeo took place in 1976, as a fundraiser in Reno. The International Gay Rodeo Association launched in 1985, and Southern Nevada formed its own association in 1992. There are currently 23 others.

"It's difficult to be openly gay and in the rodeo — even after 'Brokeback Mountain,' " says Shaun Sewell, the Nevada Gay Rodeo Association's communications director. "There are rumors of gay professional rodeo cowboys, but they're not open about it. Here, they can be open about it."

The differences struck me from the moment I entered the park and banners advertised Bud Light beer, Grey Goose vodka and ID lubricant.

Some of the events are nontraditional, too, I discover. There's goat dressing, in which billies are garbed in underwear and paraded around. (PETA loves that one.) In the gay rodeo's version of calf-roping, the rope breaks gently away after finding its target. And the pro rodeo circuit is not where you will find the Wild Drag Race — in which a steer is yanked out into the middle of the arena so a female impersonator can ride it across a finish line. (At least you won't find it there yet.)

"Tell a joke," Balto commands me over the PA.

We've arrived at the part of the rodeo clown's job that falls between events. Killing is involved here only in the comedic sense.

I stand silent, waiting for a joke to come, but every one I've ever heard hides from my brain's retrieval system.

"I'm more of an observational rodeo clown," I explain to the crowd.

I actually tried the straight rodeos first. They all turned me down. So I turned to the gays. I knew they'd say yes. They've loved me since high school. In fact, during a pre-rodeo party at the Riviera, one Stetsoned attendee cornered me in an elevator.

"Has she ever told you that you have beautiful eyes?" he asked. (I was standing next to my girlfriend, whom he was ignoring.)

"Stop hiding behind me!" Balto yells.

The event now is chute-dogging, which began in the gay rodeo and is slowly making its way into the mainstream — much like loafers with no socks. The object is grabbing hold of a steer by the mouth and horns and wrestling him to the ground. Once pinned, the steer gets up and runs wild until he's corralled out of the arena.

Each time the cycle repeats, I resume my involuntarily Pamplona routine.

"What are you afraid of, honey?" shouts a woman whose beard pokes through her makeup. "They're only steer! They're more afraid of you than you are of them!" (The difference between a steer and a bull, if you're as clueless as I was, is the same as between me and a regular reporter. It involves the absence of a specific anatomical part.)

OK, so they're not bulls. But if 500-pound horned wild animals running in unpredictable directions is so safe, why did the Bighorn make me sign a waiver holding it harmless in the event of my death?

"I think he thought he was gonna make balloon animals, folks!" Balto tells the crowd.

My "Steer Eye for the Straight Guy" episode ends as awkwardly as it began. One animal, branded "20," jerks left and then right. I follow suit but find myself directly in its path. Less than three seconds separate me from seeing my great-grandmother at the end of a long tunnel of light.

"You've got to be kidding," Balto announces. "You're not leaving before the bull riding."

He proceeds to watch me do just that.

Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.




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