COVER STORY

Bonnie Henry: Raisin' some dust

How Tucson's rodeo - and its rich, colorful traditions - came to be
2010-02-21T00:00:00Z Bonnie Henry: Raisin' some dustBonnie Henry Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 21, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Baseball teams and golf tournaments may come and go, but the rodeo and its attendant hoopla still ride tall in the saddle here in Tucson.

For more than 20 years, it's been my privilege to record some of that rich history. Here are excerpts from some of my favorite rodeo tales, and some updates.

Polo-playing Easterner saddles up initial rodeo

This'll take the starch out of your Levi's.

La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, Tucson's most Western event - and just maybe the last thing left to yippie-ti-yi-yo about in this town - was started by a polo-playing Eastern industrialist.

The man was Leighton Kramer, a polo enthusiast who liked to "play cowboy" with his Western friends. Seems one day late in 1924, Kramer wondered aloud to his cowman friends why Tucson had no rodeo.

A committee made up of men such as Kramer, the president of the Chamber of Commerce and a local car dealer got together to explore the idea.

The Chamber of Commerce had no money to spare, the town had no suitable field. So Kramer donated Santa Catalina Field, a 10-acre parcel east of Campbell Avenue, north of Elm Street.

Much of the stock, labor and material for the pens and bleachers was donated or loaned out. Businessmen helped with financing. Life memberships were also sold in the Arizona Polo Association, which would wind up sponsoring Tucson's first six rodeos.

With hotels bulging, hundreds of Tucsonans opened up their homes to droves of out-of-town visitors just before the great event, set for Feb. 21-23, 1925.

City police and federal officials did their best to present Tucson's best face. For a solid two weeks before the event, the "captures of stills and moonshine have practically driven bootleggers out of Tucson and made them afraid to ply their trade, even with tried and true customers," reported the Star.

All the hard work paid off. On the Friday night before the first rodeo, not a single case of public drunkenness darkened the police blotter, the next day's Star happily reported.

Saturday morning the parade began. Down West Congress Street came the entries, in categories such as "Skinniest Horse" or "Best Decorated Auto" - this before "non-mechanized" became the watchword. Prizes ranged from a 100-pound sack of potatoes to a pair of "lady's silk teddies."

The three-day rodeo was equally successful. Taxis ferried spectators to the field, so far from town. Or those driving their own cars could watch from their automobiles, in what may have been Tucson's first drive-in activity.

Besides the usual rodeo events, which drew cowboys from as far away as Ten Sleep, Wyo., the first rodeo also featured woman bronco buster "Tad" Lucas, as well as a men's bulldogging team that roped its steer from atop a chauffeured Packard.

A resounding success, though it lost $1,200, the rodeo became an annual event, held for the next six years at Leighton Kramer's field.

In 1931, the Chamber of Commerce and the Pima County Fair Commission took over rodeo sponsorship. By then plans were already under way to move the rodeo to its present site at South Sixth Avenue and Irvington Road. The move took place in time for the 1932 rodeo.

Less than three months past Pearl Harbor, and with things already set in motion, the parade and rodeo went off as scheduled in 1942.

But everything was canceled in 1943, rodeo and parade. Just a year later, La Fiesta de los Vaqueros was back in full swing at the rodeo grounds, though the parade was put on hold until war's end.

Record crowds jammed the parade and rodeo in 1946. For years after, the rodeo was about the biggest attraction in this town - kicking up its heels for a city slicker who just wanted to play cowboy.

Legendary clown makes the bulls happy: He retires

Ten years ago, rodeo clown Chuck Henson hung up his britches and tucked away the greasepaint for good.

Only the bulls are happy about that. "I had to get out. My knee was going," said Henson, now 79. "The first thing you know, I'd get run over and hooked."

Getting gored and trampled was all part of the job for Henson, whose task was to distract a raging bull from recently ejected riders.

A veteran of hundreds of rodeos, Chuck got bucked off his daddy's horse when he was 1. His father was Charles "Heavy" Henson, a saddle-bronc rider and steer wrestler married to Margie Greenough, also a saddle-bronc rider. All three were part of the rodeo circuit, with Chuck becoming part of the clown act by the time he was 5.

By the time he was 9, he was trick-roping and trick-riding, getting paid $10 a performance. But he didn't ride the broncs or bulls until he was grown.

By the late 1940s, he was an all-around performer. About the same time he also clowned around for the first time against the bulls.

Chuck first appeared at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds in the early '60s, as both rider and clown.

"I rode broncs in my clown clothes," said Chuck, who was inducted into the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.

royal following included queens and a genuine lady

Sadly, Tucson's rodeo is no longer presided over by royalty, female or otherwise.

"Our last queen was Leslie Aira, in 2003," said Tucson rodeo spokeswoman Joan Liess. "Young women just didn't have the time for all the community events, such as visiting schools and hospitals."

Thus ended a tradition whose beginning date no one seems to know. While old-timers are hard-pressed to name what year contests for queen began, early competitions were decidedly casual.

Carolyn Shifley, 1937 rodeo queen, was selected by public applause at the Santa Rita Hotel.

"More than once, we came up with a gal who couldn't even ride," said Ferd Lauber, who became involved with the Tucson rodeo in 1939. "We took her word for it that she could ride. So then we'd have to tell her to practice. Fast."

"For many years, the rodeo queen was whoever sold the most tickets to the rodeo dance," Gary Williams, general manager of the Tucson Rodeo, told me in 2003.

Louise Priser Newman was Tucson's rodeo queen in 1941. Just 16 then, Newman said she sold a passel of tickets for the rodeo dance, then held at the old Blue Moon ballroom. "I think my dad bought a lot of the tickets."

One thing's for sure: Queens did not necessarily have to be single. In 1948, Marian Verch Gray, married and a mom, got the nod from the Tucson Junior Chamber of Commerce.

"I told them, 'I don't think you want a married woman with a 3-year-old daughter.' But they did." Not only that, she was crowned by Lady Astor.

"Gene Autry was supposed to do the honors but got tied up in Phoenix," said Gray. "They were scrounging around for someone to replace Gene Autry and somebody mentioned that Lady Astor and her husband were vacationing at the Arizona Inn. She was thrilled to do it."

A tradition left hanging: Lucky couple got roped in

Another tradition that's bitten the dust is the little necktie party put on every year by the Tucson Vigilantes, which drew its members from the Tucson Junior Chamber of Commerce.

For decades, sheriff's deputies, with Vigilantes riding along, staked out a portion of Interstate 10 east of Tucson looking for a couple - no dogs, no kids - in a vehicle with out-of-town plates.

The couple would be pulled over and, if they agreed, would be given a mock hanging at the nearby TTT Truck Stop, along with five days of rootin' tootin' rodeo.

Started in 1936, the Vigilantes - um - hung it up for good following the 2003 rodeo, citing a dwindling membership.

Official song penned more than 50 years ago

You've got the hat, the boots and the jeans that are going to stay stiff for the next six washings.

But you're still a tenderfoot until you learn Tucson's official rodeo song.

Repeat after me: "Oh put your big hat on your head, 'cause if you don't you'll wish you had - it's ro-de-o time in Old Tucson," performed by Kenny Smith and the Westerners.

Smith, whom many old-timers around here still remember for his way with a steel guitar, arranged the song more than 50 years ago with his neighbor, Pete Peterson, who earlier came up with the words and music.

"He had helped me with some of my songs. I'd written other songs. Then we got into that one," said Smith, who's now back in Tucson after years of living in Oklahoma. "We decided, 'It's good,' so we recorded it."

A year after the record came out, Smith started selling them at the Tucson rodeo.

"I performed at the rodeo with my group. I sang the song and told people they could buy it in the stands." That same year, the Junior Chamber of Commerce made it Tucson's official rodeo song.

Smith wasn't the only one to record the song. Dean Armstrong and his band also pressed out a couple of hundred records of it. "We'd just give them out at the breakfast and lunches after the rodeo," said Armstrong.

Bill Barrett and the Barrettones also recorded the song on the old Cactus label. The rodeo committee wound up with stacks and stacks of them.

Fact is, live music was once an integral part of the rodeo, recounted rodeo organizer Ferd Lauber in his history, "La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, 1925-1987."

The 10th Cavalry and 25th Infantry bands from Fort Huachuca performed at the first rodeo.

In 1935, a 35-member Mexican orchestra entertained the crowds. And in 1952, the Ruby Nance Rodeo Band became the first official rodeo band.

Others followed up until the 1980s, when rodeo organizers, said Lauber, had too much trouble with live bands.

"You've got to time the music into the rodeo action - know when to cut it off," Lauber told me back in 1997. "With canned music, one guy can do it all a lot simpler."

Yeah, but is he wearing a big hat on his head?

Bonnie Henry's column appears Sundays and Mondays. Reach her at 573-4179 or at bhenry@azstarnet.com or write to P.O. Box 26807, Tucson, AZ 85726.

On StarNet: To hear a portion of "It's Rodeo Time in Old Tucson" and see more photos go to azstarnet.com/gallery

if you go

The 85th annual La Fiesta de los Vaqueros runs through next Sunday, Feb. 28, with the Tucson Rodeo Parade on Thursday.

For a complete list of times, events and locations, log onto: www.tucsonrodeo.com

DID YOU KNOW

The CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) made 54,000 adobe bricks on site to complete buildings and a perimeter wall around the rodeo grounds prior to the 1934 rodeo.

"More than once, we came up with a gal who couldn't even ride. We took her word for it that she could ride. So then we'd have to tell her to practice. Fast."

Ferd Lauber, on how a rodeo queen was sometimes selected in the old days

Bonnie Henry For more old-time Tucson tales, you can purchase Bonnie's "Another Tucson" ($30) and "Tucson Memories" ($20) at www.tucson.com/store or at 807-7760.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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