OGDEN, Utah — John Harrison grew up around cowboys and bull riders. But the 33-year-old Oklahoman chose to become a rodeo clown instead, with all its technicolor and silly outfits.
Now an established performer, Harrison brought his act to the Pioneer Days rodeo at Ogden Pioneer Stadium, his second time at the venue. Still, in a tough world of dust and dirt, he said the hardest part is getting dressed.
“Sequins, you know. You’re not supposed to look shiny as a cowboy,” Harrison said. But he slaps on the grease paint and the shiny get-up, and he gets into it.
The rodeo got him early. His grandfather Warren “Freckles” Brown was a world champion bull rider in the 1960s. Harrison remembers that rodeo people were always around when he was a child, so he grew up in that world.
In particular, he remembers the trick riders. And after seeing what they could do, he got his first lesson when he was only 6 years old.
“I was fascinated by what they did,” he said. He wanted to do the same.
His grandfather died about a year later, but Harrison kept at it. By his senior year in high school, he went to California and bought his first horses. The woman who sold them to him also showed him how to stand up on two of them — one foot on the back of each — as they run.
He went on to learn and perfect more tricks in Colorado before finally hitting the road and trying to make his name.
Like aspiring stand-up comedians attending one open mic night after another, trick riders and rodeo clowns perform at whatever amateur venues they can around the country. And he found and developed his comedy along the way.
Through the humor and chance to ad lib, he said, he found a way to bond with the audience.
He kept working on his act and modeled himself after his inspirations, Keith Isley and Flint Rasmussen. He loves their off-the-cuff style. They never go out and tell the same jokes one night after another, he said.
As he kept working on his act, his peers took notice. Every year, the 75 to 80 rodeo clowns in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association nominate their peers as the best of the year. Three times, Harrison has been in the top five with his idols, Isley and Rasmussen.
“It means a lot to me,” he said.
But success aside, he loves the experience of being out on the rodeo stage, especially in Ogden.
Harrison marched out onto the dirt arena of Ogden Pioneer Stadium for the Friday night show, but he took a break from his dancing and jokes to watch four fighter jets from Hill Air Force Base make their scheduled fly-over.
Those jets, flying over the mountains that are the immediate backdrop for the arena, set the venue apart for him. He added that he appreciates the Ogden rodeo’s generous staff and enthusiastic crowds.
He enjoys building a relationship with his audience and getting them into the act. On a recent Friday night, he was hopping out of the arena and into the stands to goof around with the crowd.
His performances include getting into a barrel for a bull to knock around. He also does trick riding on horses, including holding onto them as he runs alongside them, and standing on their backs, known as Roman riding.
Like any job that involves so much physicality, the rodeo life has a time limit. Already, Harrison has had shoulder and knee reconstruction, as well as work on his hip, from falls he took into the dirt.
Even after Harrison leaves the rodeo, the rodeo family tradition his grandfather started may continue.
Before the Ogden rodeo, Harrison sat down in a lawn chair outside his trailer — which has his grandfather’s name on it in black letters — on the east side of the stadium.
More than a dozen horses and their riders trotted around in the dirt just a few yards away, getting ready for the show.
And at his feet, Harrison’s 2-year-old son, Cazwell, played with a truck. Soon enough, he and his 4-year-old sister, Addison, might find themselves in the act. Addison is already learning to ride.
Rodeo stars to be, Harrison said.