By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The rodeo is a rite of passage that's cornier than Dallas's State Fair, nuttier than San Antonio's Fiesta and way more chaotically fun than Galveston's Mardi Gras. For a few weeks near the end of every winter, Houston chooses to revel in being a cowtown instead of fanatically trying to disabuse that notion.
There are good things and bad things about all this. The bad things: Trail riders tie up traffic. You may cringe in horror if you bring an out-of-town guest to a downtown lunch on Go Texan Day ("I've never seen anyone wearing a bolo tie here before!! Really!!"). Going on the rides, or watching as your kids go, now requires a financial outlay roughly equal to one month of the Iraq War. You may get to smell a lot of animal shit.
On the other hand, you get to see some amazing athletes do some wild things -- and a top musical act -- for a little over twenty bucks, and that's not bad these days. You get to see the banal parking lot of Reliant Arena transformed into a classic midway of rides, strange food and games where you realize you're getting ripped off but you play anyway. You get to see farm-fresh kids lovingly tend to the animals that they've spent a year getting ready for this big moment in the big city. And at least some of the money you're spending goes to charity.
The rodeo -- celebrating its 75th year -- is a strange mix of sights, sounds and smells. There's no way to sum it up, but here are some bits and pieces.
You Gonna Eat That?
Food is one of the main draws of the rodeo. And one of the weirdest.
Things are offered for sale at the food booths that should never be ingested by man, beast or child. If a substance can be deep-fried and put on a stick, it's available here. And like the old song says, grease is the word.
We talked to Marilyn Swanson, a nutritionist at the Baylor College of Medicine. A transcript perhaps can't best convey the horrified intake of breath that was her reaction to some of these examples, but it will have to do.
Houston Press: Let's go through a list. Sausage on a stick?
Swanson: Hmm, pretty high in fat. It would be better if it were on whole-wheat bread, but we know that's not going to be the case. High in sodium.
HP: Giant turkey leg.
Swanson: That probably could be better than a lot of choices because turkey provides some protein, some essential B vitamins, as long as you watch your portions.
HP: Well, it probably weighs about five pounds.
Swanson: Maybe you don't have to eat it all, maybe you could share it with your sweetie...One of the things that can be healthy, as long as they don't drench it in that artificial butter, is corn on a stick.
HP: It's safe to say they pretty much drench it in artificial butter.
Swanson: Sometimes, though, they dip it, so if you can get it without them dipping it it's okay.
HP: What about fried Oreos?
Swanson: I find it hard to find a real saving grace on those. I have had sausage on a stick, I have had a turkey leg, but I have never had a fried Oreo.
HP: There's gotta be something in it -- maybe some good dairy freshness in the white cream?
Swanson: I can't think of a real saving grace.
HP: Let me give you some options. If you had to choose between these, which would you take: sausage on a stick, pizza on a stick, fried Oreos or deep-fried cookie dough?
Swanson: Oh, pizza on a stick.
HP: Really? Pizza's healthy?
Swanson: Pizza's a lot more healthy than anything else on that list. Pizza's not bad -- it's got cheese in it, that's good; it has some protein. You can get a really healthy pizza. Of course, you have to do that at a fancy upscale restaurant, probably. It's got the tomato paste, that's got lycopene; vitamin A, vitamin C in that tomato, yeah.
HP: Wow. You're validating my whole diet here. Now all you've got to do is tell me beer's great for you.
Swanson: Well, you know, everything in moderation. I'm sort of a wine-o as opposed to a beer-o, but my boyfriend's a beer-o.
HP: Great, you got rid of all my guilt here.
Swanson: Portion size, portion size, portion size!!
HP: Never mind.
NIGHT OF THE DIVA
For most Houstonians, rodeo season begins with the annual breathless announcement of which entertainment acts will be taking to the revolving stage amidst the dirt and dust of the arena floor. Through the years the acts have included everyone from Elvis Presley to Bob Dylan, from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Natalie Cole, from Dolly Parton to Cheap Trick.
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.
"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.
"You'll see some tears shed because a lot of them don't want to see that animal go," Cowley says. "They've become attached to it. They know from the outset that it's a market animal, but they've worked with them for a year."
Even the animals that get eliminated from the competition before the auction are marched onto trucks and taken away to become hamburger. (Or, if they're really bad, Steak-Ums, we guess.)
It's a harsh little ending, and it finishes a competition that, since it involves hard-working kids who've reached a big-time Moment of Truth, can be as tense as any 5A high-school football final. It all takes place just a few steps from the midway, but most folks never know it's going on.
BAIT AND SWITCH
And what happens when you put in a winning bid for a steer? Do you take the animal home to Bellaire? Or even Seguin?
No. In fact, you don't even get the meat from the thing.
"Because we sell 660 steers, to try and logistically get each and every buyer the meat from their steer broken down into boxes and whatnot, it's just not feasible," Cowley says.
Winning bidders have two options: they can get a $1,000 credit on their bid (so if they won with a $13,000 bid, say, they'd only write a check for $12,000). Or they can get a "gourmet meat package" from a steer that never even entered the competition.
"It's essentially steaks they get," Cowley says, "about 112 pounds. Restaurant-quality beef that's been aged 21 days, choice restaurant-quality beef."
That works out better for the buyer, too, because as pretty and perfect as the winning steers may look, there's no guarantee about how good their meat will be. There's no way to check for the marbling that defines great meat, unless you want to slice open the animal on the judging stand.
"Most of them are fairly young animals and have been fed often enough that they'd still eat pretty good, but there's more consistency in the meat that [winning bidders] get with the gourmet packages," Cowley says. "Not all those steers in the competition are going to grade choice."
The meat the winning bidders will get has already been cut and stockpiled a week before the show opens. On the bright side, that means that the winners, as they chomp down on their prime beef, don't have to be bothered by the fact that they've actually seen the animal they're eating.
Never meeting the steer that provided your meal -- it's made many a steak dinner go down easier.
Having thousands of animals together produces, you won't be surprised to learn, a lot of crap.
When the circus comes to town, people line up to get the elephant manure to use as mulch in their gardens. The rodeo and livestock show must be a gold mine for the stuff, right?
Alas, no. None of you locals are getting your hands on any of the 10,000 cubic yards of brown gold that the show's animals put forth.
"During the show it would be a danger to the public to try and let them into these areas to get it. I mean, we barely find room for all the livestock show contestants to pull in and unload their animals," says Greg Golightly, managing director of the rodeo's Buildings & Grounds Department. "It would create a huge problem if you tried to do something during the show on the site."
The shit comes combined with the bedding used in the stalls, which consists of pine shavings and pine dust. It would still make great stuff for the garden, but even after the show closes for the year -- when about 70 percent of all that the animals produce is still there for the taking --the material is off-limits to the public.
Again, it's logistics. There's an army of workers and vehicles tearing down everything that got put up a month earlier, so having folks come in with shovels and pickups would be an insurance nightmare and a traffic hassle.
Instead a company called Living Earth contracts to take away the bedding and future mulch. It all gets piled up in a (presumably smelly) corner of the grounds, and for a couple of weeks 18-wheeler after 18-wheeler comes and takes it away. Maybe 40 truckloads' worth, Golightly says.
Not one of the more glamorous rodeo-related jobs, to be sure, but not everyone can escort Beyoncť on stage.
ART AND SCIENCE
Looking at the eclectic lineup of musical entertainment that the rodeo offers each year, you might think someone somewhere simply plucked names out of a hat. Take last year: The shows included Trisha Yearwood, Maroon 5, Larry The Cable Guy and Hilary Duff. Ain't no rhyme or reason there, right?
Wrong. These days the lineup is determined by a sophisticated polling-and-computer-analysis system that would put many a political campaign to shame. And the ins and outs of what rodeo officials consider when putting together shows involve some quirky bits of information.
Leroy Shafer, chief operating officer of the rodeo, has a master's degree in communications with an emphasis on audience analysis, and he's the mastermind behind the whole deal.
The rodeo polls season-ticket holders, volunteers and the general public several times a year. It's gotten to the point where -- especially with country acts -- Shafer can predict almost to perfection the number of tickets a particular entertainer will sell.
(Among the oddities: If a 55-year-old female is polled, given the names of three acts and asked if she would attend those shows -- and says "yes" to all three -- there's only a 13 percent chance she'll come to any of the three, Shafer says. If it's a 24-year-old female and she says "yes" to just one, there's an 85 percent probability she actually will.)
With 20 shows to book, it's not simply a matter of getting the hottest acts possible. Shafer has to take into account what type of crowd an entertainer will draw and figure out the best day for them.
The rodeo gets its revenue from tickets sold, from the food and other merchandise sold, from the "corral clubs" that sell liquor and from the carnival rides.
"So let's take Hannah Montana," he says. "Hannah Montana is going to do zero in our corral clubs. Not gonna happen. Hannah Montana will be a tremendous carnival day. So what we need to do is put her on a day that's not a great club day to begin with -- Sunday. Let's say we've got George Strait. His audience is getting a little bit older now; there's not a heckuva lot of carnival-crowd kids that go to see George Strait anymore. He's a pretty good corral-club night, so he should be a weeknight entertainer. And we know he's going to sell out any night we put him on, so let's put him on the hardest night to sell -- Tuesday night."
A few years ago, rodeo officials insisted on getting Julio Iglesias despite Shafer's computer analysis ("His audience profile is going to be that narrow," he says, holding his fingers oh-so-slightly apart. "Middle-aged to older white women, and husband is usually not coming with them.")
The only date open was a Sunday. "It was an abysmal carnival day, it was an abysmal corral-club day, and we didn't sell as many tickets as we should have," he moans. "If we had put him on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, that's normally a bad night anyway, but if you were a Julio Iglesias fan you were still going to come out to see him, and you wouldn't have drawn down the carnival on a good carnival day."
SECRET TO SUCCESS
About half the tickets sold each year to the shows go to season-ticket holders, and most of them are country fans. Affluent, older country fans. But Shafer's job includes appealing to the general audience and getting people into the rodeo who haven't been there before. So he has to book classic-rock acts and shows for teens and tweens.
Those noncountry acts have to pass one of two tests for Shafer to keep the season-ticket holders appeased: They either have to sell out Reliant Stadium ("The season-ticket base knows we're a charity and need to have revenue") or they have to make people want to get their hands on those tickets.
"If their grandkids or their friends, neighbors or employees want those tickets, then the season-ticket base is happy," he says. "I can guess, with about 100 percent suretyÉthat not one person who buys a season ticket knew who Hannah Montana was when we signed her, but when every grandkid and every friend of a grandkid said, 'You gotta get me tickets to that,' they're going to buy into that," he says.
If you can't entertain them, at least make them feel important and privileged. Not a bad way to keep a ticket-buying base happy.
Beer AND Booze For the Kids
This year the rodeo opened, as it always does, with the Barbecue Cookoff. Which sounds pretty tame, right? Maybe if they called it Cowboy Mardi Gras they'd be closer to the mark.
Just as in New Orleans the parades are mostly just an excuse to drink, here in Houston the judging of barbecue skills is secondary to the primary purpose of the event: getting wasted. (In moderation, of course.)
Hundreds of tents are set up on the grounds, featuring teams with names like the Thirty Minute Gang, the Lost Village Cooking Team (Motto: "We May Not Know Where We Are, But We Can Sure As Hell Tell You Where To Go") and the Always Able But Confused Cookers.
Corporations such as Continental Airlines and Stewart & Stevenson have elaborate tents, too. The Stewart & Stevenson one, designed to look like an Old West store, has signs saying "Carriage & Wagon Builders" and "Horseshoeing Carefully Executed"; we looked but didn't see one that said "Defense Department Boondoggles Cheerfully Done."
The key to enjoying the event is getting into the tents, preferably as many as possible. Sure, you walk by some and see a tired cover band butchering "Proud Mary" or a bunch of white folks trying to dance to "Ice Ice Baby" and you think you're better off outside. But inside is where the free drinks are.
Trouble is, you can't get into the tents without a wristband or an invite. It makes it easy to tell the people with a lot of connections: They're the ones staggering around with an arm bearing a rainbow's worth of wristbands. Most others sport one or two.
Not all tents are created equal. Most offer beer, but others have tequila or Jell-O shots. Jack Daniel's, Crown Royal and Wild Turkey have their own tents.
If you're thinking there's another Mardi Gras equivalent -- women flashing for wristbands instead of beads -- you're out of luck. But there's a lot of cleavage at the Cookoff, and a lot of tents have some official who can be bribed by a cowgirl with a tight top and a big smile.
At the Jack Daniel's tent, there are 50 people -- with invites -- waiting to get the wristbands that will get them inside. Eventually, 4,000 or so will succeed over the course of the three-day event.
The wristband gets each person three drink tokens, says Greg Szajna, Houston market manager for Brown-Forman, the company that owns Jack Daniel's. (Unlike the beer tents, which have no limits beyond what will get you a public intoxication arrest, the hard-liquor tents are a little less free.)
"It's Americana. It's what this country's all about," Szajna says. He's talking about the Jack Daniel's story, not the people on the bread line for free drinks, but his analysis can apply to both.
"You've got 365 private parties out here," he says.
And even if you can't get into any of them, you can still pay admission, get a plate of barbecue, pay for your beers and listen to some country bands.
And it's important you do so, Szajna says. "You're here to support the kids," he says. " All that money goes to scholarships. It's a good cause."
And if that means serving 15,000 free Jack Daniel's drinks over a weekend, then that's what it takes, dammit.