Tucson Citizen
Wednesday, February 25, 2004

La Fiesta de los Vaqueros: Rodeo is Tucson's Mardi Gras


Tucsonans boasted in 1925 that "New Orleans has its Mardi Gras" and "Pasadena has its Tournament of Roses," Tucson Citizen columnist Don Schellie wrote 38 years later ...
"Now Tucson will have its Fiesta de los Vaqueros."

But the city's annual signature festival didn't have to go through tradition and growing pains as other nationally prominent events did. It boomed from the start, and with purpose.

In February of '25, the grandest winter visitor ever, Leighton Kramer, decided to throw the biggest party his limitless imagination could conceive, and the first Tucson Rodeo turned out to be even bigger. Special Union Pacific trains came from Los Angeles and El Paso, Texas, and because there were few inns of any manner, many people slept in the Pullman cars.

Tucsonan Chuck Henson, a rodeo clown in pro rodeo's hall of fame, remembers "tent cities" and "tentlike cabins."

It was bursting with pageantry. People dressed in gaudy Western apparel from the beginning in "picturesque confusion," Kramer later wrote.

"He (Kramer) was trying to get more winter visitors to come here and get the ones who were here to stay longer," says present La Fiesta de los Vaqueros general manager Gary Williams, who said the premium still is "entertainment."

"There was really nothing going on in Tucson," Williams adds. "This was something the whole community could get behind, something to capture the Western flavor of the town."

The big parade was held for practical reasons - to transport the competitors. A total of 130 cowboys - and they were real cowboys - gathered for feats of skill at Kramer Field - now Catalina Vista - east of Campbell between Grant and Elm. The purse was $6,650 and events were steer wrestling, steer tying, calf roping and saddle bronc riding.

Special events included a wild horse race, lady bronc rider Tad Lucas, and Jack Brown bulldogging a steer from a Packard.

"Cowboy," thanks to the fictionalized Western movie tradition, was no longer a term of derision. Its origin is in the days of Spanish conquistadores whose Hispanic workers, "vaqueros" - this fact is seldom brought out in American cowboy lore - organized contests for roping and horsemanship.

Ray Harm, the world-renowned wildlife hand-sketching artist, who still "cowboys" his Sonoita ranch at age 77, competed in the Tucson Rodeo in 1942-43 as a bull rider.

The streets were dirt not far from Congress and he noted people hanging wet sheets in front of fans in their windows - the first swamp coolers. Cowboys wore no Wranglers - canvas Levi's was the trend - and rodeo competitors had not long before organized themselves into the CTA - Cowboys' Turtle Association.

Harm still thinks there should be a distinction between a cowboy and a rodeo rider.

"They worked 18 hours a day and it wasn't glamorous," Harm says. "They knew how to run a straight fence line, where to fashion 'dog legs,' and set corner braces.

"They could pull sucker rods on windmills and replace leather and rope and drag, brand, inoculate, castrate, dehorn, load and ship cattle. They knew pasture rotation, cattle breeds and replacement heifers.

"They could shoe horses, tie knots and throw hitches and read teeth and doctor cattle and work up a helluva sweat getting down and dirty and branding calves."

When the shipping was done, cowboys rode the rodeo circuit hoping to supplement a $2 a day income.

"You rode one rodeo after another," he says, "like a migrant worker."

The biggest change in rodeo today, of course, is that it's recognized as a major sports event. TV and money - a $279,000 purse there this year - have done much to secure that.

"The change in the mind-set developed over time that these guys were really athletes," Williams says. "It happened when they started approaching rodeo the way football or baseball players would. The cowboys before thought of themselves as cowboys, not as being in athletic competition.

"One of the first changes was six-time all-around champion Larry Mahan. He trained as an athlete. And another great, Ty Murray, even as a kid was involved in gymnastics to help him with balance and agility."

The public, Williams says, now is perceiving rodeo athletes as real pro athletes. But the show is still entertainment first.

"The real rodeo fans here... . We couldn't live without them and, God bless 'em, they're wonderful folks. But if we had to depend on them, we'd all starve. There are just not enough of them."

Every year the Tucson Rodeo must come up with crowd-pleasing innovation to bring people in. And golf tournaments, Williams says, are not the competition.

"It is Blockbuster and cable TV," he says.

Big names helped in the past - John Wayne, Rex Allen and the like - although the Rodeo Grounds' biggest event had nothing to do with rodeo. Elvis Presley performed a concert there in June 1956.

Movies have been filmed here at rodeo time, including "Arena" in 1954, "Stir Crazy with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in 1980 (Williams was a convict bull-riding extra). Also, "Eight Seconds" (1994), and "Ruby Jean and Joe" with Tom Selleck (1996).

The cast from the 1970s TV series "High Chaparral" regularly visited the present Rodeo Grounds, which opened in 1932.

Tucson is no longer the Wild West but the rodeo here tries to bring that spirit back, if only as a modern re-creation.

Today, rodeo memories mean nostalgia, especially for residents who "go way back" and those, such as Leigh Billingsley, who have grown up with the riding, color, parade, pageantry and atmosphere. She is Henson's youngest daughter.

At 36, she competes on the national tour and for the last eight years has had the honor of carrying the American flag on horseback.

"I kind of wish it was still the way it was back when I was young," she wistfully says. "I don't think I can remember a single moment of my life that I haven't been involved with this rodeo. It's like having Christmas every year."

Cele Peterson, the Tucson fashion designer and shop owner and this year's parade grand marshal, agrees.

"The stores close... . It's one of the biggest days of the year, like Christmas."

The 79th annual Fiesta de los Vaqueros kicks off tomorrow with a parade starting at 9 a.m. at East Ajo Way and South Park Avenue. The parade will proceed south on Park to East Irvington Road, then west on Irvington to South Sixth Avenue, ending at the Rodeo Grounds.

Tickets for bleacher seats along the final leg of the parade are $4 for adults and $3 for those 12 and younger. They can be bought at the rodeo ticket office, 4823 S. Sixth Ave.

Parking is limited on streets adjacent to the parade route, and parade fans are advised to arrive early.

Road closures will begin at 6:30 a.m., when Irvington will be closed between Sixth and Fletcher Avenues.

At 7 a.m., Sixth will be closed between Ajo and Irvington.

Starting at 8 a.m., Ajo will be closed between Sixth and Benson Highway, Park will be closed between Benson and Bantam Road, Irvington will be closed between 12th and Campbell avenues and Nogales Highway will be closed between Drexel Road and Irvington. All roads will re-open when the parade ends about noon.

Sun Tran will provide round-trip shuttle service to the parade for $1. Shuttles will originate behind O'Rielly Chevrolet at Park Place and east of American Home Furnishings at Tucson Mall. Buses will leave every 15 minutes between 7 and 9 a.m.

Sun Tran bus routes 2, 6, 8, 11, 26, 29, 50 and 186 will be detoured because of the road closures from 7 a.m. to noon. Passengers on those routes should expect delays.

For more information on the shuttles or the bus detours, call 792-9222 or go to www.suntran.com.

Rodeo performances are scheduled through Feb. 29. Tickets are $10-$19; children 2 and younger will be admitted free.

Tickets are available at Western Warehouse stores and at the Rodeo Grounds ticket office. For more information call 741-2233.