Landis still saving cowboys, making rodeo fans laugh




Donnie Landis has been working rodeos since he was 4, and fighting bulls since he was 12.

Rodeo is part of the Landis genetic code. It's right there at the bend where the double helix bucks. Daddy was a clown, bullfighter, barrel man and a rodeo producer. Granddaddy was a bronc rider. Great-granddaddy was a pickup man, the savior who rode his horse alongside the broncs or bulls still bucking, kicking, sunfishing and it was done to help save the rider's bones, maybe his life, because not every rider succeeds when it's time to bail out.

"Daddy was fighting bulls at two rodeos with another clown and bullfighter. They were flying back and forth," said Landis, who turned 51 on Tuesday. "His partner got hurt, broke a leg or something. Daddy said it was time for me to start. I put on a little grease paint and some baggy pants and started."

He's still at it.

"I'm not done yet," he said. "I won't retire until they put six feet of dirt on me."

He wasn't the jokester when he started at age 12.

"My dad was the funny man," Landis said.

Landis is the funny man now. He's in the baggy pants, wearing psychedelic pink, yellow, blue and a few other colored shirts, plus a black sombrero. There is a big red nose on his face. He's got stockmen's boots on his feet. Landis is sitting in, dancing around and flying over the barrel in the arena this week at the Finney County Fairgrounds as the Beef Empire Days PRCA Rodeo gets serious. He works with two bullfighters to distract the animals who have an attitude when it comes to cowboys and clowns.

"It's our job to get the bull's attention and make sure the cowboy gets away from the bull," he said, "and at the same time, keep the crowd laughing."

About that red nose, it has not always been a part of the Landis repertoire.

When he was younger, Landis said he saw a rodeo clown with a red nose an awful lot like the one he now wears. That clown just barely escaped an upset bull by jumping in the barrel. The bull hooked the barrel around the arena a few times, bellered a lot and finally got tired of it. After the bull stalked away, the clown stuck his head out of the protective barrel. His big red nose was in his mouth.

"I couldn't stop laughing," Landis said. "I got me a nose. And every now and then that nose will wind up in my mouth after the bull mauls the barrel with me inside."

There is always banter between the clown and the crowd.

"We have a celebrity in the bleachers here tonight." Landis screams. "It's Dolly Parton. No it ain't. It's two bald-headed men."

That is one of his oldest jokes, he said. People laugh. It works.

"I'll be in the barrel here in Garden City," Landis said. "My job is to provide an island of safety for the bullfighters and the athletes. In the barrel, I am in a better position to see what is happening and how best to maneuver that island of safety."

Born in Los Angeles on June 7, 1960, and reared behind the rodeo chutes around California and across the United States, he now is based out of Gooding, Idaho, and considered by his peers to be one of the best in the business.

"You know the difference between my wife and that bull," he yells as a bull roars past, "about 30 pounds."

According to the National Finals Rodeo personnel listing of bullfighters, clowns and barrelmen, Landis worked the National Finals Rodeo in 1993 and 1995 and was an alternate in 1997 and 2009.

Name the major league rodeos in which this 5-foot-6, 175-pound or so clown, barrel man and bullfighter has entertained the crowd and helped keep the bucking stock off the cowboys, and you've got a long list.

"Houston, Fort Worth, Cheyenne, Calgary, the national finals in Las Vegas, Nev.," he said, naming the venues where rodeo legends begin.

He came into Garden City on Wednesday night in a big brown trailer and his pickup. Already this season, he's rodeoed in Jacksonville, Fla., Bozeman, Mont., and Elko, Nev.

But he has done a lot more than wander from rodeo to rodeo.

Once upon a time, he rode bulls for a couple of years. That, he recalled, was in 1986 or '87.

"I broke my collarbone and messed up my back," he said of his bull riding days. "Messing up my back actually made me a better rider because it forced me to keep my chest out like you're supposed to do."

He returned to clowning and bullfighting because it is fun and there is a steady weekly check. Prize money is nowhere near certain for rodeo cowboys, he said, because you have to finish high to earn any.

There was the time he retired for a while "because I got fat — up to 240 and a 44-inch waist" and started a miniature bull ranch breeding and raising the small bulls for youth rodeo. Miniature bulls, he said, are better than calves or steers for the young riders because their backs are wider and they're chute broke, more like the larger bulls in the adult rodeos.

"I went bull broke," he said. "It took all my money."

But he did make it on CNN in 1998 when, Landis said, they did a piece on his miniature bulls.

Landis decided then to head back to the arena, but as he told the tale, he had that weight problem.

He looked at two or three weight loss books. He read about a third of one "and threw it away."

Landis went on the Landis weight loss program. He cut down on his eating.

"I started doing 25 miles a day on a bicycle and four miles on a treadmill," he said, adding that he still does, more or less, and he keeps trim by dodging bulls most days.

It worked. He's down to 175 now, only 10 pounds above his playing weight of a few years ago, and his Levi size went to 36 or 38.

Landis said the rodeo cowboys and cowgirls of today are different than when he was young. They're athletes now, he said; they go to the gym; they don't hit the honky tonks when they're going to compete.

"Rodeos are getting bigger and bigger money, better and better competition," he said. "People are coming more and more because it's better and cheaper to go to a hometown rodeo than to drive to Florida or Disneyland in California, or someplace like that."

What does the future hold for Donnie Landis, clown, barrel man, bullfighter?

"Rodeo," he said. "I ramble. I just got to see things."

When the Beef Empire Days Rodeo is history, Landis heads north for Crazy Horse, S.D.

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