GLEN ROSE – For as long as he can recall, Rudy Burns had been known for two things – being a class clown in his younger years and always having a good joke at his disposal. However, what he wanted to be known for was an eight-second ride on rodeo’s biggest stage.
So when a rodeo promoter approached Burns some 45-odd years ago and asked if he wanted in on the next weekend’s rodeo, the funnyman bull rider jumped at the opportunity for another eight seconds of work.
The promoter, however, had another idea and it didn’t involve Burns hopping on a bull’s back.
“I need a clown,” said the promoter after the weekend’s rodeo clown failed to show.
“Man, I ain’t no clown,” Burns replied.
“‘I’ll pay you,” the promoter countered.
Those words led Burns to arrive the next weekend decked out in makeup and overalls with every intention of protecting the bull riders – not competing against them. It was in that moment, at that small-town rodeo, that Burns began a four-and-a-half decade career as a bullfighter, barrel man and rodeo clown.
“It didn’t take me long to figure out I was a lot better clown than I was a bull rider and now it’s been 45 years of this,” Burns said.
Burns has been in the business for 45 years and admits that protecting bull riders is not an easy job. He has been banged up, bruised and beaten, and has had his fair share of injuries in his four-decade career.
“When you’re fighting the bulls it’s a little bit tough and as I got older the bulls were knocking me down a lot more,” Burns said. “I finally figured out I was getting old and slow, so now I’m on what I call a retirement plan for bull fighters. If you want to do this and not get a real job, you get in the barrel.”
The barrel Burns refers to is an 85-pound red barrel, complete with “safety” padding on the inside and outside to prevent Burns, and the bulls, from head injuries. Being inside a barrel that is being hit by a bull is a lot easier than having your body battered by the massive beasts.
“You fight those bulls [long enough] and the law of averages is on their side. One of them is going to get you,” he added.
One of Burns most severe injuries happened when a bull’s horn tore through his left cheek and took a majority of his top teeth with it. Don’t worry, after a few stitches – which Burns said he ended up removing himself – the rodeo clown ultimately decided to have all of his remaining teeth removed to prevent the incident from happening again.
He also broke his foot while working a show in Hawaii.
“A bull got me down and threw me over the fence,” he recounted. “One ankle stayed on one side and the rest of me went to the other side. They had to put pins in [my ankle] and that’s probably the longest I had to stay out of the arena.”
With a couple handfuls of injuries sustained, some serious and others of the dislocation variety, one would assume that Burns has encountered a few moments that made him question if it was time to put away the clown makeup once and for all.
“I got hit pretty hard the other night and seen those little birdies and said, ‘You know I’m getting too old for this,’” Burns said. But everybody laughed and when I came out they gave me a round of applause and that makes it all worthwhile.”
After all, making people laugh is the main reason Burns got into the business. When he injured his foot and was out for six months, Burns said he “liked to went crazy, because I couldn’t perform.”
Throughout the year, Burns steps into rodeo arenas around the country wearing his signature pink cowboy hat, over a rainbow-colored wig and pair of red suspenders that hold up pants much too large for him. The aesthetic is a part of his act of telling jokes and doing a clown routine to break up what he calls the monotony of the event.
“When I hear people say how much fun they had, that’s just as good as a paycheck,” Burns said.
Entertaining the crowd is Burns' specialty, and he has been awarded the prestigious honor of PRCA’s Barrel Man of the Year in 1995 and 2000. He was also runner-up in 1998, 1999, 2001 and 2010.
“It’s been a dream come true for a guy like myself,” Burns explained of his career. “It’s been a great life for me. It’s just something a lot of people don’t accomplish and I have been fortunate enough to accomplish it."
Burns was also asked to work all events at the 1996 National Finals Rodeo and has been voted five-separate times to man the barrel during the PBR World Championships at the annual NFR.
“The first time I did it, I was like a kid in the candy store,” he recalled. “I walked out there and the place was jam-packed and sold out and it was something else.”
It isn’t only about entertaining the crowd. Burns said he also enjoys the camaraderie that comes along with being in the rodeo.
“After the rodeo we sit around, cut up and tell old war stories and talk about each other,” he said.
Outside of staring down hundreds of 2,000-pound bulls, Burns and his wife, Betty Jane, have successfully raised two children and are now proud grandparents.
“She practically stayed home raising two kids on her own, because I was gone on the weekends,” he said. “She is a tough lady and she hung in there with me and I’m glad she did, because, if the shoe was on the other foot, I probably wouldn’t have made it 45 years.”
Now that Betty Jane has retired from her banking job, she travels around the country with Burns as he put on his shows.
“It’s been a good life and now we can enjoy it together,” Burns expressed.
When asked if he would mind if his grandchildren followed in his footsteps, Burns laughed and said, “I’m going to tell them to go get a stethoscope and be a doctor.”
“If they wanted to be a rodeo clown I wouldn’t mind if they got in the barrel, but I wouldn’t want them to fight the bulls,” Burns said. “But to see them get out there and do that, I would understand what my wife has gone through for 45 years.”
After all the time he has spent on the rodeo circuit, Burns has seen many changes of the sport. With the increase in sponsors and advertisers, Burns has seen contractors who do not want rodeo clowns to mess with their bulls because of the amount of money invested into each head. As soon as the bull is away from the rider, they want the bull right back in the pen so that they are ready to go for the next city and show.
“It’s more a business now,” Burns said. “When I first started in the rodeo it was more of a sport. Now you have sponsors and cowboys winning hundreds of thousand dollars a year, and its now become a business, and not a sport, and to me that is taking away from the rodeo.”
Even with the changes that have happened in the rodeo, Burns couldn’t imagine retiring anytime soon.
“When it gets in your blood you are ruined,” Burns said. “When it quits being fun is when I’ll quit and go find me a place to fish on the bank.”
But would he really be happy somewhere fishing on the banks? Burns laughed and stated, “I hope I can do this till I croak.”
Be sure and catch Burns in his oversized britches and red suspenders during the upcoming PRCA at the Somervell County Expo, March 3-5.