BEERS, STEERS AND...

Fried Twinkies, $5 bumper cars, Hannah Montana and the hardest working kids in Texas

For 34 years Leroy Shafer has been the mastermind of the musical acts. Now the chief operating officer for the rodeo organization, his time as entertainment impresario got off to a rocky start.

"In 1974," he says, "we had the misfortune of having booked Sonny & Cher, and they then announced their divorce and breakup two weeks prior to our show. Their management and agents assured us they would do the show and there would be no issues."

Didn't quite turn out that way. The pair arrived in separate jets, got to the Astrodome in separate cars, dressed in separate rooms and didn't see each other until they hit the stage. Where Cher immediately began shooting daggers with her eyes at her soon-to-be ex-husband.

Justin Roberts checks out some size 314 1/2 cowboy boots.
Daniel Kramer
Justin Roberts checks out some size 314 1/2 cowboy boots.
Whether it's Budweiser or water, everyone drinks at the rodeo.
Daniel Kramer
Whether it's Budweiser or water, everyone drinks at the rodeo.

"At that time, two-thirds of their show was their deadpan shtick that they did back and forth between each other," Shafer says. "Sonny handed off his barb to her like he would normally do and she just looked at him. He repeated it and she said, 'We weren't going there.' He came across with something else and she said, 'You son of a bitch.'"

She walked offstage to a nearby temporary changing room and refused to come out. Sonny, dying onstage without the talented half of the duo, tried desperately to keep the crowd entertained.

Cher was eventually coaxed back onstage, but another round of ripostes sent her again to the dressing room. And Sonny, in trying to comically call loudly for her, blew out the relatively lame public-address system the entertainment acts used in those days.

Man. Does a performance get any better than that?

"We ended the show right then and probably got more requests for money back on that show than any I've been involved in," Shafer says.

Maybe, but it eventually helped launch a legendary political career.

THE COMPETITION YOU PROBABLY IGNORE

A lot of people call the event "the rodeo," but of course it's actually the Livestock Show and Rodeo. If you just go for the rides, the rodeo and the stars, you're missing half the spectacle.

For thousands of Texas animals -- cows, lambs, goats, chickens -- the Livestock Show is the Miss America Pageant, a chance to strut their stuff and get judged. (And, eventually, eaten. But that's showbiz.)

We're guessing the animals don't have much idea of what's going on, but for the kids who own them things are very different. This is something they've been shooting for all year.

About ten months ago, most of them -- aged eight to 18 -- started hunting for an animal to enter. If you planned on competing with a steer, for instance, you started looking for a likely candidate at ranches, auctions or even feedlots across the state. (Very few kids actually raise their animals from birth.)

"They're looking for something they can afford and that they think will turn into a good show project for them," says Joel Cowley, the executive director of the livestock competition.

Some may pay up to $10,000 for a steer; the kid who got second place last year found his steer in a feedlot and paid a dollar a pound for the 500-pound animal.

Then, for kids working with steers, it's twice-a-day feeding and working the beast so it shows itself off to best effect.

There's also the little-known science of scouting out who a particular event's judges will be.

Judges rate the entrants on muscle, the ratio of fat and the structure, posture and "prettiness" of the animal, Cowley says. And since it's subjective, some judges can value one aspect over another.

"One judge might like it more muscular, one might like it more leaner," he says. "Based upon what [contestants] see at other shows, they'll say, 'Oh, you better have a thick one or you're not going to do well with that judge' or 'It better be structurally correct.' There are some subtle differences."

Based on that, a kid who's been preparing for the Houston show might decide, after seeing the list of judges, that he'd be better off entering the San Antonio or Fort Worth shows.

If he does come to Houston, he can hit some big bucks. The champion steer is guaranteed a $75,000 price.

The auction itself can be a hoot. Of the 1,800 or so steers who enter the competition, about 280 or so win some type of prize in their category (say, first through fourth place in Angus steers, or first through fourth in Limousin). Maybe 200 of those will actually be marched across the stage as the auctioneer tries to drive up the bidding.

But the others get sold, too, even if they don't get displayed. Maybe the kid who prepared a steer will walk across the stage instead of his animal. If he's a big-eyed eight-year-old with an adorably cute little sister holding a homemade banner announcing his name and hometown, so much the better in the sometimes shameless search for bids.

A lot of the kids come away with some money -- most of the dollars spent at the auction have already been raised months before -- and then it's time to say goodbye to Ol' Sparky, or whatever kids are calling cows nowadays.

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