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Meet the Arkansas cowboy who found a new life as a rodeo clown

Rob Gann puts on his clown makeup in the backstage locker room at the Adirondack Stampede Rodeo in Glens Falls, N.Y.
Rob Gann puts on his clown makeup in the backstage locker room at the Adirondack Stampede Rodeo in Glens Falls, N.Y.

It's an hour before showtime and Rob Gann is running late. He has to get his makeup on, climb into his costume, and build a flash-bang firework that will provide the big noisy finish for his act.

"Most clowns have a little bit of pyromaniac in them," Gann chuckles. "End result is you blow something up."

Gann, 41, lives in Lonoke County, Ark., where his family raises horses. But he spends most weekends of the year on the road working his craft. Over the last six years he's emerged as one of the country's most in-demand rodeo clowns, the latest act of his decades-long rodeo career.

On a recent night, he's in Glens Falls, N.Y., appearing before a sellout crowd at the Adirondack Stampede Rodeo.

Cowboy boots for sale at The Farm House Tack Shop booth at the Adirondack Stampede in the Cool Insuring Arena in Glens Falls, New York.
/ M. Scott Brauer for NPR
Cowboy boots for sale at The Farm House Tack Shop booth at the Adirondack Stampede in the Cool Insuring Arena in Glens Falls, New York.
Gann puts on a leg brace as he gets into costume in the backstage locker room.
/ M. Scott Brauer for NPR
Gann puts on a leg brace as he gets into costume in the backstage locker room.
Rob Gann speaks with bullfighter Phil Hussman in their backstage locker room before performing.
/ M. Scott Brauer for NPR
Rob Gann speaks with bullfighter Phil Hussman in their backstage locker room before performing.

After rigging the gunpowder for the finale of his act, Gann sits on a folding chair, bent over a little hand mirror, and begins to paint his face. "When I put my makeup on and I put my costume on, it's like I get to be somebody that I'm not," he says. "I walk in that dirt and it's like, game on, I'm ready."

The venue is an ice hockey arena that looks more Montana or Wyoming than upstate New York. A thick layer of dirt has replaced the ice. Lean broncos and massive bulls move restlessly in corrals as they wait for the action.

"When I was born my parents were rodeo-ing," Gann says, adding final touches of face paint. "When I was a kid I got drug around to rodeos and fell in love with it."

That's one reason Gann is comfortable joking and clowning about the very real dangers of this sport. He's lived it. He rode bulls for years and put himself through college — he was a school teacher for a while — on a rodeo scholarship.

"Knowing that you're fixing to [ride] on an animal that could quite possibly kill you, it's a feeling like no other," Gann says. "I'm getting goose bumps thinking about it. It's cool."

Spectators pray before the Adirondack Stampede in the Cool Insuring Arena in Glens Falls, N.Y.
/ M. Scott Brauer for NPR
Spectators pray before the Adirondack Stampede in the Cool Insuring Arena in Glens Falls, N.Y.
Gann, who works as a rodeo clown, prays backstage before entering the arena.
/ M. Scott Brauer for NPR
Gann, who works as a rodeo clown, prays backstage before entering the arena.
Gann performs at the Adirondack Stampede.
/ M. Scott Brauer for NPR
Gann performs at the Adirondack Stampede.

Cool and often brutal. Rodeo is a booming sport. Think NASCAR with bulls and broncos instead of race cars. Many bull riders these days wear helmets and chest protectors, but severe injuries are considered a part of the sport.

After deciding he didn't have a future as a top-tier rodeo athlete, Gann started looking for ways to stay in the life, working first as a "bull fighter." Those are the men and women who charge in to rescue cowboys after they're thrown from a bull or bronco.

But even in that support role, the danger is daunting. Gann has broken so many bones, it's hard for him to keep track. "I separated my pelvis when a bull hit me and threw me in the air and I landed with my legs split," he says.

When a reporter winces at Gann's description of his injuries, he grins and says, "Well, you asked."

Gann moves a little stiffly these days. Before pulling on his boyish, oversized clown pants, he straps a knee brace onto his leg. He says he knew he had to do something different, something safer, if he wanted to keep going on the rodeo circuit.

Rodeo Clown Rob Gann helps move fire props for trick rider.
/ M. Scott Brauer for NPR
Rodeo Clown Rob Gann helps move fire props for trick rider.
Gann performs, left, and Miss Rodeo New York Madalynn Jurenko prepares to enter the arena, right.
/ M. Scott Brauer for NPR
Gann performs, left, and Miss Rodeo New York Madalynn Jurenko prepares to enter the arena, right.
Rob Gann waits backstage before entering the arena to perform.
/ M. Scott Brauer for NPR
Rob Gann waits backstage before entering the arena to perform.

"I had some friends that were clowns and I really enjoyed what they done and I thought heck, I could do that," he says.

In his mid-30s, Gann transformed himself into the larger-than-life character who goes prancing across the arena as the crowd roars approval.

Clowns have been part of the rodeo life since the early 1900s. The action in a rodeo happens in fierce bursts, as barrel riders spin their horses through figure eights and cowboys with lariats spinning chase down calves.

Whenever there's a lull, Gann capers into the spotlight, cracking wise or poking fun at someone in the crowd or mocking the cowboys.

After one rider lands hard in the dirt, Gann cackles and says, "That's exactly what I felt like today trying to get my wife out of Walmart. The result was the same, too. I got my butt kicked."

Part of the rodeo clown's job is to take the edge off the violence, Gann says, making jokes about the danger, spinning the crowd's fear into fun.

On this night there's one crazy moment when a cowboy perches in the chute on the back of a massive, enraged bull with horns like steak knives. The gate flies open and the bull explodes all muscle and mayhem.

A bull rider competes at the Adirondack Stampede in the Cool Insuring Arena.
/ M. Scott Brauer for NPR
A bull rider competes at the Adirondack Stampede in the Cool Insuring Arena.
Team ropers compete at the Adirondack Stampede.
/ M. Scott Brauer for NPR
Team ropers compete at the Adirondack Stampede.
A large cow that reads "Painted Pony Rodeo" stands outside the Adirondack Stampede.
/ M. Scott Brauer for NPR
A large cow that reads "Painted Pony Rodeo" stands outside the Adirondack Stampede.

There's a collective gasp and groan as the rider crashes to the ground. Gann is ready with his own pratfall.

"Why is he trying to protect the brain that just told him to get on a bull?" he jokes. "He may not even have a brain left!"

His humor is silly and slapstick — think Three Stooges more than Marx Brothers. Gann says he's always careful to read the action and rein in his routine if there's an actual injury.

Happily, all the athletes stay safe this night. Soon it's time for the explosion that caps Gann's act. He fumbles a giant stick of red dynamite down his oversized pants, hooting with excitement. "Everybody now for real! Stick your fingers in your ears!"

When the firework finally explodes – a safe distance from his hindquarters – the crowd eats it up as Gann goes sprawling in the barnyard dirt.

Gann looks like he's having a great time. This latest act of his rodeo career isn't easy or glamorous, Gann says. But clowning has kept him in the world he loves, close to the bulls and the cowboys and the danger he can't seem to quit.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gann waves to the crowd after performing at the Adirondack Stampede.
/ M. Scott Brauer for NPR
Gann waves to the crowd after performing at the Adirondack Stampede.