Move ’em on, head ’em up
Head ’em up, move ’em on
Move ’em on, head ’em up
The theme song for the old TV show “Rawhide” rings in my ears whenever the rodeo rides into town. No matter that the Westerns from the 1950s and ’60s dramatized cowboy life without what one might call documentary precision.
To a kid from East Texas who grew up in Houston, the rodeo was plain fun. And an inextricable part of our culture, especially here in Texas, despite the rise of cities and their suburbs since 1920, as well as reasonable concerns about animal — and human — welfare.
As Rodeo Austin kicks off its annual array of arena sports, concerts, carnival and livestock show on March 11, we asked readers to share their memories of fandangos past. Rodeo sawdust runs in the veins of some storytellers, such as the Callahans and Steiners. Others who were mere spectators of the passing show nevertheless harbor enduring recollections.
We paired these memories with remarkable photographs taken in Austin by Robert Godwin during the 1970s and ’80s.
“Johnny Rodriguez was the first entertainer we ever hired for our rodeo in the Quonset hut by the lake (the demolished City Coliseum). We fit 1,800 seats in that whole thing. We fenced it. Fenced it right up against the first row of the bleachers.
“Everybody else those days had entertainment at their rodeo. Coming down the highway, I had heard Rodriguez on the radio. He would be a nice addition to our little rodeo, I thought. James ‘Happy’ Sheehan, who owned the Alamo Village down in Brackettville — the first ‘Alamo’ movie was shot there — he had taken Rodriguez on as his agent.
“But Johnny had got in trouble and was stuck in a Sabinal jail. Joaquin Jackson, the famous Texas Ranger, he was his supervisor. He says: ‘I can bring him to you. But he cannot take any money. Because if he does, it goes directly to the restitution for his little goat-thieving deal.’
“So we put Rodriguez up, and Jackson stayed with him. All we had was risers, so the stage was made out of four risers out in the middle of the arena. He got out there with his guitar, and I guess he had a fiddle. The acoustics were bad, but he performed quite well. People got a kick out of it.
“Now, David Kruger of Kruger Jewelers was one of our sponsors. I asked him what kind of diamond would I get for a rising young entertainer that I thought would make it big time. I’ve got $1,000 to spend. Kruger said: ‘You’d get a damn nice diamond for that.’ They did give him a beautiful diamond, and I gave David $1,000.”
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“My favorite rodeo memory is the time Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, along with the Sons of the Pioneers, were the stars of the Houston Rodeo and Fat Stock Show. It was in the late 1940s or early 1950s. The rodeo was held in the old coliseum — there were no mega-arenas in those days.
“At the end of the show, Roy Rogers rode all the way around the rim of the arena and shook hands with every kid who could get down to the edge. I was one of those kids. I vowed never to wash that hand! What a day that was!”
“I’ve sure seen some things out there. Some wrecks. That just comes with the territory.
“When I was about 6 years old, we put on a rodeo in Havana, Cuba, right before Castro took over. The clowns had a cannon act. The Batista government had guns. Now, not many people were at that rodeo. Everybody was waiting for Castro to come down from the hills. So the clowns fired this cannon off. Everybody thought Castro had jumped down on them. People were running out of the building in a panic. Everybody thought the war was on! We got out three days before he came out of the hills.
“Dale Robertson was an entertainer and a friend of my parents. When he was done singing during the rodeo, he always sang ‘Cool Water.’ Dad thought it would be funny if he got guys up on top of building and filled a big trough with water. They were going to pour it on him. I don’t think they thought about how much water weighed. It knocked Robertson right off the stage. He took it well. Just crazy cowboys doing crazy things at the rodeo.
“When you are doing the rodeo thing, things just aren’t normal, especially in your younger years. You are thrill-seeking. It seems normal when you are in it, just not normal when you look back at it. It was just an unbelievable way for me to grow up. My parents were on the road 10 months out of the year. We always were from Austin, but nobody from Austin knew who we were. Glad I don’t have to the rodeo thing anymore, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
“Growing up in a small Texas town, the Denton rodeo was the only social event of the year. I remember attending night after night with my politician father — he would stop and visit with everyone — and many times we didn’t even get past the front gate before it was time to go home. My mom would have to come with us so that we actually made it all the way inside!
“My favorite memories are watching all the rodeo competitions — barrel racing is my favorite. I also loved flirting with boys running around the carnival, and the late-night concerts, where we would two-step late into the evening.
“When I moved to Austin, I was blown away by how much bigger the rodeo is here. The excitement was electric and the opportunity to see the animals and how well cared for and loved they are is very special. … To me, if you value nature, animals, living simply and the outdoors, then there’s no better connection than the rodeo.”
“It’s not the rodeo that fires my best memories, it’s the pre-rodeo cowboy breakfast. It would still be night when I left my sleeping husband, roused my young children and piled them into the car. Sometimes they would fall back asleep on the long drive, but often they’d be effervescing with the feeling that it was somehow illicit to have an adventure on a school morning.
“We would be parked and waiting at the entrance when the breakfast opened at 6 a.m. and were often the first ones to enter. To the children, it felt like Christmas. They went to the giveaway booths first, collecting koozies, keychains, pens — all precious treasures to excited 6-year-olds.
“Then, they would eat their way through breakfast — pancakes, sausages, breakfast tacos, biscuits and gravy, hot cocoa — the food seemed endless, as did their appetites. Finally, as the sun rose, we would watch the demonstrations — roping, Dutch ovens, carving, music, cowboy coffee — and leave in time to get them to school for the first bell.
“To me, it is a gift, a series of sparkling dawn memories from the city of Austin. It is yet another reason to love this town.”
“One night, our fourth year in the new facility, we were watering the arena down to keep it from being so dusty. Everybody was cooking barbecue for the appreciation dinner, sitting around the pits cooking, duded up in fancy white shirts and jeans. ‘Hey, this would be kinda funny: We need to spray some water over there.’ The truck had something like a water cannon, and when it hit the barbecue pit with water, it all went up like a ball full of steam. You’ve never seen people run like that. They wanted to kill us.
“One classic of all times at the rodeo arena: We were using wireless microphones for the first time. The national anthem was playing, you know, ‘bombs bursting in air.’ Somebody flipped the halogen light on, the electric signal went through the wireless mikes, and sounded like cannons going off. The horses went crazy, about haft of the sheriff’s deputies got bucked off. The rodeo president’s horse rode off but didn’t pitch him off. He stopped real fast, and the president went over his head.
“Charley Pride came down on an afternoon to give a free show for kids with disabilities. The other guys got me good. Instead of the regular calf scramble with kids, I was the calf. I had about 4 pounds of dirt in my mouth. They didn’t tell me about it in advance, they just roped me and drug me across the arena.
“After two years when we put entertainers on cotton wagons, we decided to build a stage out of scrap parts, and it’s still working out there now. The first night, they didn’t unhook a chain and, immediately, it stripped the gear. We got under that stage and turned it manually for the whole show. Everybody laughed about it. When we came out we were wringing wet. It was a hot night!”
“The night Eddie Rabbit played back in the ’80s, a few of us we were upstairs at the Founder’s Club after his meet-and-greet, and Eddie looked at me, walked over — and he was a tall guy — and told me I had eyes that men could write songs about. Wow! What do you say to that? No pickup line, he was just so nice, and of course, I was so flattered! That is something a girl remembers.
“I used to look forward to being a judge at the barbecue cookoff every year and got to meet several celebs and athletes as well. Some years, they would have fun things for us to all do at the tent before the judging started. I remember the year I got to be paired with Earl Campbell as a partner for the horseshoes competition. We had a blast — at least I did! — I was not the best horseshoe partner, but we had fun. He was such a delightful man – sweet and fun. He brought his family to the rodeo several years, and we always enjoyed him coming out for a night.
“I was helping out with the entertainment committee the year Mickey Gilley performed. Afterward, we were talking backstage, and I introduced myself to him. Back when I was growing up, both of our families lived in the same middle-class neighborhood in southwest Houston. His daughter and I were friends, and I used to hang out at his house. My brother was also friends with his older son. There was always music coming out of Mickey’s garage, with his kids playing and practicing! Anyway, he said he remembered those days.
“One of the best things was the excitement of riding a horse down Congress Avenue during the Rodeo Parade when I was rodeo queen. It was pretty exciting for me at that age. And probably still would be now!”
“My family would drive down to Huntsville every year for the prison rodeo. I went off to TCU and got totally hooked on ranch rodeo. Won my first — and only — buckle in a minor league Fort Worth Stockyards roping event after being somewhat overserved at the White Elephant saloon.
“I grew up pushing cows down Haynie Flat Road with Mike Levy, a paleface red brangus breeder and longtime Austin Rodeo icon. Not to be confused with my friend, Mr. Texas Monthly Levy.
“I conspired one time with legendary announcer Hadley Barrett to take down high-riding Leon Coffee, the world-famous rodeo bullfighter and barrel clown. Lured Leon to a strategic position in the arena as we bantered back and forth between rides, with a full tub of flour resting on the rafters above. Leon loved the spotlight and finally took the bait — my assistant pulled the rope, and bombs away. The crowd roared. We’re friends to this day, spent many hot summer days loading hay bales together.
“Once, I met with the full rodeo board of directors to present a list of potential entertainers for the upcoming annual Rodeo Gala. I suggested a 15-year-old gal I’d seen at a talent contest taping. ‘Nah,’ they said, ‘she won’t draw a crowd.’ We’d had Brooks and Dunn the year before, so we had to go some to top that. That little gal was LeAnn Rimes. Her hit single ‘Blue’ shot to the top of the charts later that year. Can’t win ’em all.
“Arrived at the Expo Center at dawn one Saturday morning for concert sound check. Was sitting on a chute gate, sipping scalding black coffee when a voice behind me says, ‘Wow, she is something, isn’t she?’ He joined me on the gate as we enjoyed Faith Hill in designer sweats, hair pulled back in a ponytail, no makeup, as she breezed through her playlist. She had recently announced her engagement, as had my coffee companion, Tim McGraw. To different people, I’d add. Faith was opening for Tim on their Spontaneous Combustion Tour. Y’all know the rest of the story.
“Times changed. Pure country-and-western acts were not drawing as they had in the past. Yours truly took a deep breath and booked Creedence Clearwater Revival (minus John Fogerty). Was as nervous as a puppy passing peach seeds before the show. Invited everybody in my Rolodex spinner. And packed the house. The next year, we added Tejano entertainment on Sundays. Now look at the lineup. All good.
“You always knew it was rodeo time. We were fourth on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit, behind Fort Worth, San Antone and Houston. March weather in Texas: Rain, sleet, even snowed once. Always mud. But those kids from the area FFA and 4-H chapters, they kept us inspired. Never complained, always smiling. Polite, well-mannered and proud to be the future of agriculture in Texas.
“As my memories fade into the sunset, their faces — that’s what I will always remember.”
Travis County Expo Center, 7311 Decker Lane