Back by popular demand, legendary rodeo clown Lecile Harris returned to the Southeastern Livestock Exposition (SLE) Rodeo in Montgomery this year.
A member of the ProRodeo Hall of Fame, Harris has been a staple at the Montgomery rodeo for years. Harris first came to the rodeo in 1982, when it was sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) and was a Harper-Morgan Rodeo Production.
However, he was absent last year when SLE officials decided to stray away from its 52-year partnership with the PRCA and, for the first time, host the IPRA’s (International Professional Rodeo Association) National All Region Finals Rodeo.
While most loyal fans who have attended the SLE for years may not have noticed the switch from the PRCA to the IPRA in 2010 because the rodeo was comparable with the seven traditional rodeo events of bareback riding, steer wrestling, calf-roping, saddle bronc riding, team roping, barrel racing and bull riding, most fans did question, "Where was Lecile?" So SLE officials decided to bring the legendary funnyman back to Garrett Coliseum for 2011.
A true legend in the sport of rodeo, Harris has been entertaining crowds for 57 years and at 74 years old still works more than 100 rodeos a year.
"I have tried to cut back to about 100 a year and this year I think I have 110; I get closer to 100 each year." Harris remarked. "I have cut back to rodeos I really want to work, rodeos I have fun at."
For most of his career, Harris worked an average of around 150 rodeos a year throughout the United States and Canada.
"If I don’t have fun at a rodeo, I just don’t go anymore," Harris explained. "That’s what keeps me going. I am still having fun rodeoing."
Just as he has done for years before each rodeo, Harris painted his face to mimic the forlorn expression fans have grown to love over the years, dressed in his signature red-and-white checkered shirt, pulled up the yellow suspenders on his Wrangler baggies, topped it off with a shaggy wig and red felt hat, and stepped into the arena to reveal his passion for rodeoing and entertaining crowds is still as strong as ever.
"I have had so many years of getting to where I am, now I think it’s time for me to kind of relax and do things I want to do, and the rodeos I want to do," Harris said. "It’s a little tough on me physically, especially at my age, but mentally it gets a little easier for me I think because I am more relaxed at it."
Known predominately as a funnyman to today’s fans, Harris’s rodeo career actually began as bull rider and bull fighter.
"When I started out, I was riding bulls and I figured out real quick I wasn’t going to be able to make a living at that," Harris explained. "I was at a rodeo and a clown didn’t show up, so I just offered to step in and fight bulls."
Harris had been watching the bull fighters closely at events and was more intrigued by that than he was the bull riding, and so his career began.
"At the time I was riding bulls and started fighting bulls to pay my entry fees into the bull riding," Harris said.
After a while of riding and fighting bulls, the rodeo producer told Harris he would have to give up one or the other because he couldn’t afford to have him get hurt; Harris has been a bullfighter and rodeo clown ever since.
"When I started, most all rodeos had one clown who was also the bullfighter and you did it all," Harris explained. "You did the comedy, you fought bulls, you just did everything, and, if you didn’t have comedy acts and you didn’t fight bulls, you just didn’t work."
In today’s rodeos, there are both bullfighters and rodeo clowns with a few doing both. Often bullfighters are offended if someone refers to them as a "rodeo clown," but Harris excelled at both.
"I mixed my comedy into my bullfighting," Harris explained about his unique style. "I hardly-ever went on a bull to get somebody out of a hairy situation or untie them without coming out and doing a piece of comedy at the end.
"To me that was what a clown was all about. For me, doing that was the ultimate; it was my high."
When Harris decided to retire from fighting bulls in 1989 at the age of 52, he said the transition into solely comedy wasn’t too hard for him, but leaving bullfighting was hard.
"Because I had been doing comedy all the time, it was so easy for me to just do comedy; but it was hard for me to stand back and watch bullfighters work because it was what I had done for 36 years," Harris recalled.
Today, Harris gets gratification from watching younger bullfighters he has mentored over the years succeed in the sport and feels, in a way, he is still fighting bulls vicariously through them.
"If I tell a bullfighter I would like to see them do this or that and they do it, I feel like that’s part of me so it gives me some satisfaction," Harris explained. "But even at 74 years old, I still get the urge to go to a bull every now and then."
In addition to his rodeo career, Harris has also had a successful acting career. He appeared on the popular television show "Hee Haw" for seven seasons, starred in the movie "Walking Tall" and was featured in several movies alongside some of the industry’s biggest names like Elvis and Burt Reynolds.
Harris feels his experience in movies and television has aided him in making his career so successful.
"I never liked the fact, when I walked out into the arena, I would have to say, ‘Ok folks, hold up a minute, I got to set up my props and I will get started,’ and when it was over I would have to say, ‘Time-out, let me get all my stuff out of the arena,’" Harris said. "I never liked that transition."
So when he was working on "Hee Haw," Harris found comedy bits on television were somewhat easier than those in a rodeo arena and began to pattern his acts after that.
"On television, you start with a black screen opening up to your act and, when it was over, you went back to black screen," Harris explained. "That’s what I tried to do when bringing my acts into rodeo, I like to be doing something to begin with and doing something going out. So from ‘Hee Haw’ and the movies, I took a little of their technology and incorporated it into my rodeo acts."
Harris also spent some of his time playing music in a band.
"I use to play music in the winter and rodeo in the summer," Harris said.
When Harris began in rodeo, there was no such thing as "indoor arenas," so there were no rodeos during the cold winter months.
"It worked out good for me, but that’s the reason so many of my acts have a music background to it," Harris said about acts like the "Mr. Friggins" skit he performed in Montgomery. "The music kind of drives me and I tend to lean that-a-way."
Born in Mississippi, Harris now resides in Collierville, TN, and most of his family is spread throughout Alabama and various parts of the Southeast; yet his popularity in the rodeo arena is known nationwide. In 2004, Harris added to his long list of career achievements by being inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame.
The sport of rodeo has changed significantly over the years and Harris has been there to see it all. With his experience, he now offers up words of advice to rising rodeo stars.
"If you are going to do it, even as a part time thing, you have to stay in condition," said Harris, who still goes to the gym every other day. "And pay attention—understand the sport and understand what you have to do to succeed."
Harris explained that in the rodeo business, like anything else, people have to pay attention to what is going on around them.
"Keep up with what’s happening in and out of the rodeo arena," Harris advised. "That’s the reason I am still able to work is because I am dealing with things happening today; so many clowns don’t and they don’t work at it."
Harris gets many of his acts and jokes from people he notices in the crowd at rodeos and said, even after 57 years in the business, he still studies comedy daily.
"A lot of people ask, ‘Where do you get your comedy?’ and I tell them, ‘Just looking around me,’" Harris said. "As I watch people walking around, I get my comedy from them. Then they pay to sit and watch what I saw them do to begin with.
"I like when I say something and a guy punches the guy next to him and says, ‘I know a guy just like that.’ That’s what keeps it fresh for me."
Many people consider Harris to be the best in the business and the best that ever will be, but Harris doesn’t let the honorable brand go to his head and take away from his performance. Just as he has for 57 years, Harris continues to enjoy his career.
"You’ve got to enjoy it and I still do. When I get to where I don’t enjoy it, I will walk away from it," Harris stated. "I have had a heck of a career."
Mary-Glenn Smith is a freelance writer from Snead.