An Interview with Rodeo Clown Lecile Harris

Come enjoy a very special interview with Lecile Harris.  Austin sits down with the Collierville native to talk about the rodeo, bullfighting, clowning, and Collierville.

Lecile Harris and the Rodeo Interview Transcript

Austin:  Hey, Austin here with Tour Collierville magazine, and I’m here today with Lecile Harris, rodeo clown and ex-bullfighter.  Thanks for coming!

Lecile: Thank you for inviting me.

A: So, tell me a little bit about how you got into the clown business and bullfighting.

L: Well, when I graduated from school, I had a football scholarship, and I was waiting for the season to start and for fall practices to start, and a buddy and I heard about a rodeo over in Arlington, Tennessee. It was a little Sunday afternoon thing. And we didn’t hear as much about the rodeo as we did about the girls that were over there.

(Austin laughs.)

L: Cowgirls, tight jeans, and all that, so we went over there to see that. I got over there and got interested in the bull riding.  Decided to get into bull riding. The first rodeo I ever saw, I got into bull riding—just to see. I thought I could do it. Learned real quick I couldn’t.  So there was… It kind of made me mad, because I got thrown so quick, so my buddy and I decided to go back there the next week and try it again. Then one day, the rodeo clown—the bull fighter, the one that took to saving the cowboys—he got his car broke down. He couldn’t make it. So I thought—and I’d been watching him, and he had a lot of football moves—I thought I’d like to try that. So I told the guy and said,  “I’ll do that.” So that’s how it got started.

L: Then they started telling me, “Well, why don’t you come back next week?  And we’ll give you your entry fees. We’ll pay your entry fees in the bull riding if you’ll do that, so I did that until I went to college.  And then it kind of got out of hand from there.

(Both laughing.)

A: Yeah, I agree.  So you touched on a little bit, but we all know that rodeo clowns are comedy, but there’s other parts to the job, too. If you could tell us a little bit about, you know… What all is the clown doing in the rodeo other than comedy?

L: Well, back then, rodeo clowns, we were called “Rodeo Clown Bullfighters,” and we were all one deal. And you were required to do both.  You could be a pretty good bullfighter, and if you did comedy, you worked a lot. You could be the best bullfighter in the world, but if you weren’t funny—if you didn’t do comedy—you didn’t work.  So, a bullfighter’s job is to take the bull off of the cowboy once the whistle is blown and he’s made the ride or if he gets bucked off at any time during that. And what that amounts to is you pretty much have to make yourself have to be a more desirable target than the cowboy laying down on the ground and can’t get up.  You have to go in there. You have to… And that’s the reason for the bright colors, that’s the reason for the baggy pants, and things like that falling in. Because you can make your moves. And most of the cowboys will wear darker clothes, something that wasn’t so attractive to the bulls. That, going in there, you’ve got their attention, you make the bull come to you.  Then it’s your job to out-maneuver the bull until you can get to safety. That way, the cowboy can leave. So it’s imperative that the bullfighters are there. Bull riders won’t get on without them.

A: All right.  Well, that sounds like a pretty tough job.

L: Yeah, well, I really enjoy it.  I loved fighting. It was a challenge.  And people would always say, you know, “Aren’t you scared?” Naturally, yeah.  If you’re not, you’re not right.

(both laugh)

L: But I don’t think it was fear as much as… There’s a fine line between fear and respect.  You know. I respected my dad, but I also feared my dad. (laughs) So there’s a fine line.  And when… And you just don’t want to get in the ring with a bull if you don’t have respect for him, because you won’t last long.  And because they’re so big and so powerful, you have to use that for your advantage. You’re able to move in a tighter circle. You’re able to move just a little quicker.  I was probably the slowest college football player to be a receiver ever. I mean, the biggest tackle on the defensive team could catch me if I was out in the flat. But I was able to run my patterns quickly.  I could make my cuts. I could be from zero to one real quick, but the cheerleader could catch me if I tried to outrun them. That’s what they’d do out there. Every time they wanted ten yards, they’d pass to me, I’d get it, and, of course, they’d tackle me right away.   But that’s what happened in my bullfighting, because I could go… You only have to move from here to here. You only have to move that far (holds hands about shoulder-width apart) you know, to be… But you better move there quick.  And you’ve got to wait until the last minute.

A: Right, right.  How did you learn to get a feel for those things?  Just by doing it? Or did you have someone that kind of taught you the ropes?  Like, you know, “This is where you need to stand; these are the kinds of movements you need to make.”

L: I didn’t.  I was watching the first bullfighter I ever saw.  And I was watching him, and I was watching a lot of his moves being moves that I used in football.  And that… So I was familiar with that. I was raised on a farm, and I was raised around animals—cows, bulls… And it happens to have what we call “cow sense.”  To be able to kind of think like a cow does, or to watch the… It’s amazing what you can tell about a bull by just seeing him in a pen. You can tell by the way…  When you fight them, and you’re that close to them, and you’ve got your hands on them all the time, it’s little things you pick up. Like, the way he moves his ears, the way he moves his head, the way he walks or the way he runs, if his feet cross over… All of those things, you have to learn to survive.

A: And they can get a little bit more predictable in their movements and that sort of thing once you kind of get a feel for it?

L: Yeah. Right.  And then you try not to get too familiar with them, because you start expecting them to do something, and they don’t.  And then it’s over with. I learned because—and what helped me a lot, because I’d never watched another bullfighter, I didn’t know what they did—I learned to fight bulls my own style.  And I got used to that style. And so when I went in from the, what we call, amateur rodeo division and into the professional rodeo business, the big world, my style was totally different from anybody else’s, which was kind of setting me apart.  And the same thing with comedy. I wasn’t familiar with rodeo clown “comedy.” So I didn’t know what they did. And they all had kind of a rodeo style, and I didn’t. My comedy was totally different, and then when I went into that big league, there I was—a totally different kind of bullfighter, with different moves, my comedy was totally different from anybody else’s comedy.  And it was all by mistake. It wasn’t designed. It was just… I dumbed into it, as my dad used to say.

A: So you were giving everybody else something that they hadn’t really seen before because you just didn’t know as much about it, right?

L: Exactly.  I didn’t know the difference.  I didn’t know the correct way to do this and that, you know?

A: Well let’s talk a little bit about the comedy side of it.  I know that, obviously, you said you were a football player. How did you know that you kind of had a knack for the comedy thing, and how did that start, you getting into that?

L: I guess… My high school principal told me one time when I was in the ninth grade.  He said, “Lecile…” Now, I spent a lot of time in his office, and it was because I was doing… making people laugh in class and that kind of thing.  But he told me, when I was a freshman—in fact, he bet me $5—he said, “I’m going to bet you $5 that you don’t graduate.”

L: He said, “You need to learn to do something besides clowning, because you’re not going to make a living clowning.”  And when he retired and he went on a speaking tour, that was always one of his first comments. “You need to watch what you say, because it might come back to bite you.”  And that’s what I did. And when I graduated, the night I graduated, he gave me the diploma, and when I opened it up, there was a five-dollar bill folded. It was in there.  He paid me off, that I did graduate. But ad to… I did… I remember one of my English teachers one time, she said… She threw me out of class. She sent me to the Principal’s office.  And he said, “Why are you down here? What did you do this time?”

L: I said, “All I did was I scratched my ear.”  And he said that you don’t get sent to the office for scratching your ear.  And I said, “I did. I scratched my ear.”

L: And after a while, Miss Greg, she was my English teacher, she said… she explained it to him, “The reason he is down here is he did scratch his ear.  He doesn’t scratch his ear like this. (scratches ear)  He scratches his other ear like this! (reaches over his head to scratch the other ear)  And he reaches over here to scratch that one.  And that makes people…” She said, “That’s the problem.  He doesn’t scratch the ear that’s closest to him, he wraps his arm all the way around and scratches the other ear, and the kids behind him think that’s funny.”

L: So I said… And I go up there and get whippings because I scratched the wrong ear with the wrong hand.  So anyway, I started… I had a band. I was in the… I was in the school band. Started out as a viola player.  Now, a viola is a big violin. And me… That was the only instrument available, so I had to take it. And to me, you know… There I was playing basketball, football, and all the sports and everything, and fighting everything in the school, and all, and they had me playing a viola.  Well, I just wasn’t a viola kind of person. But I did learn to play the viola, and then when a guy graduated, I got to go on drums. Well that’s when I started playing drums in high school. And I went to the orchestra and played the drums. I went to a drum set with the orchestra.  And then I created my own band, and it was called The Echoes. That was my first band when I first got into music. Then I went from The Echoes… We played the high school dances around here. And then I developed comedy routines to go with it. So that’s kind of where the type of standup.

A: Gotcha.

L: Because when I went into rodeo, my kind of standup came in handy, because I had a lot of ad libs.  I was able to do a lot of that kind of comedy. Rodeos are full of breaks and cracks and breakdowns. You have a calf that doesn’t want to come out, a bull that doesn’t want to come out, a horse gets upside down… There’s all kinds of little breaks in there.  And you’ve got 10,000 people sitting there, waiting. Those are voids, in my opinion. And I do seminars now, in Las Vegas, clowning seminars, and I tell them: What you need to consider yourself as a clown, you’re the glue that kind of glues all these cracks and crevices and breakdowns…

A: Pulls the show together.

L: Yeah.  It puts it together without spreading glue all over the whole rodeo.  So that’s what I try to do. I fill those little gaps where there’re breakdowns with a piece of comedy.  And people are listening to that or watching that, and they don’t even realize that there was a gap there, you know, or whatever.  So it’s… And I was good at that. I was good at ad libbing, and learned to do that, mainly I guess, just doing comedy every day.

A: That’s really cool.  And you touched a little bit on how, when you got your start, it was comedy and it was bullfighting—you kind of had to do both.  How has the rodeo kind of changed over the years?

L: It’s evolved in… Now there’s really no such thing as clown bull fighters anymore.  You’ve got your clowns and you’ve got your bullfighters. And then you’ve got your barrel men.  They’re the people who just sit in the barrel and most often do comedy. But the bullfighters now, they kind of would like to think of themselves as “athletes” more than comedy.  And it will sometimes offend them if you ask them, “Are you a rodeo clown?”

L: “No, I’m a bullfighter.”  Well, so were we. But a lot of times, we fought bulls who we got out of a hairy situation, a bad situation.  Then we’d come right out and do a piece of comedy to lighten things up again. But—and your comedy people now don’t fight bulls.  So it’s just totally separated.

A: And you’re still doing the comedy part.

L: I’m still doing the comedy part.  And the main reason I’m still in the business… I’m 82 years old. Should’ve… Well, I fought bulls until I was 52.  And you’re actually… The life expectancy of a bullfighter is probably 30 or 31 or so, and you’re… You know, you’ve got to be thinking about…

A: They’re retiring around 30, 31?  

L: Yeah.  Yep.

A: Okay.  Wow. So how long were you fighting bulls?

L: Thirty-six years.  

A: Thirty-six years…  And people usually retire from there around 30.  Wow. That’s incredible.

L: And so, it’s now—the reason I guess I am still in demand is because they don’t have the clown bullfighters anymore.  And I fought bulls and learned comedy, and when I retired from fighting bulls, I moved right on into comedy, and there was this big gap.  There’s no comedy. And there’s very few of them now that just say, “Okay, I want to learn comedy.” And what they don’t realize is that comedy pays three or four times more than a bullfighter does.  There’s a bullfighter on every corner, but there’s very few comedy people.

A: I guess now doing the comedy thing you have a little bit less chance of getting hurt, then?

L: (laughs) Oh yeah.  A lot less.  Unless you just stand around and not pay attention.  I am still in the arena during the bull riding. So I have to be able to get up and get out of the way.  

A: Always on your toes, I’m sure.

L: And two, I’m still coaching a lot of young bullfighters.  I do a lot of that, so I’m in the arena and can talk to them.  And I enjoy that part, because it’s… I don’t get to fight bulls anymore, and I miss it.  

A: Do you?

L: Oh yeah, I really do.  And I can see a bull that comes out and maybe not… You have different levels of athletes in bulls.  You’ve got some bulls that are just outstanding athletes. They can move, they can cross over, they can cut back—they’re just good athletes.  And then you’ve got these others that are not quite as good of athletes, but they’re mad. They want to fight somebody. They want to get somebody.  But they’re just not quite capable of doing it. And when those come out, my mouth waters. I’d still love to get in there on them and just feel them.  But it’s a… I pay attention when I’m in the arena now. Because I’ve been hit so many times.

A: I am sure you’ve been hurt quite a few times.

L: Yeah, I’ve had my back broken twice.  I’ve had over a hundred fractures. I’ve had everything from brain concussions to torn up knees, ankles…

A: But you miss it.

L: Yeah.  You know, and every time I got hit, I always thought, “I did something wrong.”  Or either the bull was just a better athlete than I was or he outsmarted me, so it was a competitive thing to me to get back in there and try him again to see if I can out-move him.  

A: Right.  Well that’s very cool.  And I want to bring it back around to Collierville a little bit.  You told me a story recently about how you always wanted to make sure that people know at the rodeos that you were at and performing at that people knew you were from Collierville.  And a lot of times, they would introduce you as being from Memphis, and that you wanted it to be from Collierville. Can you kind of speak a little bit to that?

L: Yeah.  I… Of course, a prime example is the Calgary Stampede, probably one of the largest rodeos in the world.  And I worked it for like 18 years in a row or something like that. Probably closer to 20. And when you’re out of the country—and I’ve rodeoed in South Africa, all over Canada, everywhere—but when you’re out of this area, people don’t know where Collierville is.  They all know where Memphis is. And it’s so easy for them to say, because it was so close to Memphis, that I was from Memphis. And I always corrected them. Sometimes I corrected them in the arena, you know, in front of the people. I let them know, “No I’m not. I’m from Collierville.”

L: And I remember…  In Calgary, there’s like 65,000.  It holds like 65,000 people. And it’s always full.  For ten days in a row or something, it’s huge. And it got to the point where I corrected the Canadians so many times about saying that I’m from Collierville that I got where I could just go out in front of this crowd… And there was a lot of them there from—they were from everywhere—all over the world, but a lot came every year.  And I’d say, “Folks, where am I from?” The whole place would say Collierville.

A: They knew.  They knew at that point.

L: You bet.  Then I’d say, “Where’s Collierville?” Tennessee!  I’ve always been proud of my hometown.

A: So you were born and raised in Collierville?

L: Actually, no. I was born in Mississippi.  I was born in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, which is just outside of Memphis, what, 15 miles or something?  But my folks moved to here when I was five. And I moved with them. I was just five, so I thought it’d be the best thing for me to come with them.  

(both laugh)

A: They probably did too.

L: So, I left and I’ve been here—we’ve been—in Collierville ever since then.

A: I am sure you’ve seen a lot of changes in Collierville.

L: Oh yeah.  Lots. But you know what?  I’m so proud of the Square.  You know, our downtown, the Square, it still feels like home.  My folks owned the restaurant here on the Square for years and years and years.  And we owned another restaurant out in… Outside of town here in Collierville. Where the old post office was where the new restaurant over there is, that was a duplex there.  We lived there for a while before we bought a farm and moved out on the farm. So, I was raised right here.

A: What do you think about the—you know, like you said, a lot has changed, and I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of change—but with the Square now, there’s a lot of changes taking place.  What do you think about the direction of where the Town’s going?

L: Oh, absolutely love it.  The way the participation now with the people in Collierville, with the Square, like coming up for concerts and using the Square.  That’s… Even though it’s changed a lot in appearance, it really hasn’t to me. I can… Because I’ve been here for, what, 70-something years, the buildings, I can tell you what used to be in that building three or four people back or whatever.  Like they say in Collierville: You’re not really from Collierville—or you don’t own a house in Collierville—for a long time, because that’s Ms. Wilson’s house. “Where do you live?” Well, I live in—“You live in Ms. Wilson’s house.” Even though you buy it, you don’t get to own it for a long, long time.  

(both laugh)

L: They got to forget about Ms. Wilson first.

A: Got to put their time in first.  

L: Yeah, that’s right.  It’s a pecking order. But Collierville is… I’ve been all over this world, and I’ve travelled a million million miles, and when I drive back into here every time I come back off a trip, it’s home.  I’m just happy to be home.

A: Well Collierville is definitely lucky to have you.  And we appreciate you coming by. It’s always good talking to you.

L: Thank you.  I just love being home.  Collierville is home.

A: That’s right.  It absolutely is. You know, we couldn’t be happier to be here now, ourselves, on the Square.  Well, thanks again.

L: You betcha.