Clowning for the Rodeo: It’s more than just putting on a happy face
TINA L. SCOTT, EDITOR
[WITH LILY SCHULTZ AND AVA STEINKE]
When most people think of clowns, children’s birthday parties naturally come to mind.
But clowning for the rodeo is about more than just putting on a happy face.
Rodeo clowns entertain large crowds from a distance as a specialty act, from the center of a rodeo arena, and often also perform double duty, serving as a barrel man and working together with bull fighters to distract a bull after it has bucked off his rider. That’s a little more dangerous than the average four-year-old child, even one that throws a fit and kicks a clown in the shins. And it takes a special skill that involves more than tying balloons into shapes.
The life of a rodeo clown
Dustin Jenkins a/k/a The Jester Jenkins, which is his professional rodeo clown persona, has been a rodeo clown for the last 21 years. His signature look is one of his own making and is part of his trademark, with the specific recognizable way he makes up his face. “I’ve got the same mouth as a jester, a court jester that you’d use,” Jenkins said, “But this is my face. This is what I came up with, and it is what it is.” [And no clown hair; he doesn’t do clown hair.]
Even his clowning attire, which almost always includes Converse tennis shoes, knee socks, baggy athletic shorts, an oversized rodeo jersey [most rodeos provide him with a jersey specific to their rodeo to wear], and a straw Wrangler cowboy hat, is a part of his signature look.
A rodeo clown can make $75,000-$80,000 a year, Jenkins said when asked. “It’s a comfortable gig … I’m not broke, [but] I’m not a millionaire either.”
There may also be per diem expenses, and there is endorsement money, he added.
“But being gone all the time is what it takes,” Jenkins said. That part, he said, can take a big toll on you. It is a rodeo lifestyle, and that means traveling. And being away from home. A lot.
Following his performances at the Wisconsin River Pro Rodeo on June 10, 11, and 12 in Merrill, he had a 16-hour drive to his next rodeo in Pennsylvania. Then it was on to Kentucky, Illinois, and then Utah after a brief stop home. “After I leave here, I’m gone for the next three weeks. I go home for two days, and then I’m gone for three-and-a-half weeks after that. Year round,” he said.
Jenkins travels with an air conditioned trailer he uses as a dressing room with his props. “We haul a lot of stuff that we can use in acts,” he said.
At home, which is in Marshfield, Missouri, in the southern part of the state not too far from Branson, he has a wife and two kids. “My daughter’s 13, and my boy is 5, so they gotta stay home with Mama,” he said.
The actual gig of being a rodeo clown? “It’s fun. It’s a blast,” Jenkins said.
His favorite part about clowning? “The people in the stands,” he said. “That’s about 90 percent of what I do. You know, you’ve gotta have fans to have me there.”
How dangerous is being a rodeo clown?
Jenkins tends to downplay the danger of being a rodeo clown, primarily because it’s not as dangerous as what he did before.
“I fought bulls for years,” Jenkins said. “I was a bull rider and bull fighter, I rode bareback horses, and that’s where it kind of led into me being a clown because I don’t get hurt near as MUCH, but I CAN get hurt, you know, in that barrel and stuff.”
“My job, it is dangerous, you know, being in a barrel during bull riding and stuff,” he said. “I mean, I get close to the bulls.”
“Is it scary? Yes, but I know what I’m doing at that point, and in my career of being a bull fighter, I need to know how close I need to be with that. But I mean, yeah, those bulls can get inside with me and you know, punch me around a little bit …”
When asked if he’s ever been injured? “Yes, with Spanish fighting bulls. We use Mexican fighting bulls,” he said.
“America has the American free-style fighting,” he said referring to our style of bull fighting. “I do a lot of the barrel work at those. You can get hurt at those, because whenever they hit you, it’s kinda like a concrete slab, it’s smokin’, you know, so it can happen.”
And he’s had concussions, which can be very serious stuff. “I was in south Texas and did a freestyle match down there, and kinda shook my brain a little bit and went into seizures, and wound up in the hospital type deal,” he said.
From roping and riding to clowning and bull fighting.
Jenkins started clowning in 2003 after “I became a Type I diabetic, so that’s what kind of got me thrown into this … I needed to figure out something else … to do.”
“Me and my brother, LJ Jenkins [who is well-known in rodeo circles], we started out riding sheep, calves, steers, you know. I did that my whole life,” he said.
Raised in a rodeo family, Jenkins grew up learning the ropes of rodeo and sharing “the cowboy tradition.” He competed in rough stock steer riding, junior bull riding, then bull riding, bareback, and saddle bronc for a number of years. At age 13, he took an interest in bullfighting “because you will always receive a paycheck every time you show up” unlike other competitions where only those with the fastest times get part of the purse [payout]. After trying bullfighting on his own and “taking some hard hits and getting ran over too many times,” he went to bullfighting school to learn some skills he could use in the arena and fought bulls professionally until his diabetes diagnosis in 2002.
His connections in rodeo were helpful when he decided to make the switch. “Somebody at work I actually fought bulls for gave me the opportunity to try clowning, and I built myself onto that, and here I am,” he said.
And he had to be patient, he said. “Patiently waiting in this business.”
“To do what I do you kind of need to know all these little increments of the rodeo to play your cards right in it,” Jenkins added.
He still rides for pleasure. “We have horses at home that every now and then I’ll get on,” Jenkins said. “But it’s usually the kids that take care of that.”
But … “I’m scared of getting on a horse these days [for rodeo],” he said. “No more riding, no more competing.”
These days he’s out in the arena for his fans as “the only funny guy. There’ll be [other] bull fighters,” he said, and he still helps as a bull fighter and barrel man. “But I just take the comedy part of the show. I’m the entertainer.”
“I’ve been clowning 21 years. I’m 41 years old now,” he said. [Although he doesn’t look it, even without the makeup.] “I think it’s clown life, too. It’s kept me young.”
Advice for kids, and kids at heart
For kids who aspire to be a rodeo clown, or anything else in life, Jenkins offers this advice: “Always dream big,” he said. “Dream big. It doesn’t matter what you’re gonna do. “Anybody and everybody can do what they wanna do in life. You just gotta have the want to and the drive.”