In counterpoint to the midway talker the rodeo announcer proclaims, "And, now, the next contestant. In chute No. 3 a steer wrestler, bronc rider and all-round athlete. Gene Lorenzo of Spring Valley, New York."
As Lorenzo's bronc lunges from the chute, the rodeo band strikes up a sparkling galop in double time. On the midway another spieler cries out, "See the killer rats from the sewers of Paris, France. Don't miss this one. Rats larger than cats. The residents live in constant fear of these giant killer rats that are slowly destroying the great city of Paris."
The fairgoers who pay 35� to see the Asian man-eating fish find inside the tent a couple of carpy-looking fish and one small piranha that would have a hard time eating its way through a slice of liverwurst. Those who pay 15� to go into the show stall where the killer rats of Paris dwell find on the inside a solitary, somnolent creature that resembles, as much as anything, a muskrat that has been dyed with shoe polish. By contrast, no one in the rodeo arena feels cheated. Although Gene Lorenzo's spectacular ride on a bronc lasts only eight seconds, it is the real thing. He is a favorite with the crowd, and they give him a big hand. The judges award him 64 points and first money of $211.68.
Lorenzo today might stand half a head taller than he does on the sport scene were it not for the fact that over the years a number of people—himself included—have screwed up his public image. His true given name is Eugene Di Lorenzo. Even though he long ago pared it down to Gene Lorenzo to make things easier for announcers and rodeo record keepers, he sometimes still turns up on entry lists and in the press as Gene Lawrence, Gene de Lorenzo or some such approximation. After a bull nearly killed him in 1955, Lorenzo purposely altered his identity for two years, competing as Gene Newman to keep his parents from fretting. (His sister Louise abetted him in this deceit by quickly switching channels when he showed up on televised rodeos in his own home.)
In the early 1950s Lorenzo won one steer-wrestling contest in New York State in 3.6 seconds, just .4 shy of the world record. The press dutifully led into the account of his feat by saying, "An Oklahoma cowboy last night came within .4 of a second of the world's bulldogging record." Although to this day Lorenzo has never been west of Fort Worth, in his early years rodeo announcers sometimes told the crowd that he was a native son of California, Wyoming or some other far part of the West. Because of his fame Lorenzo always gets a correct billing now, but the announcers still change the addresses of lesser-known Easterners whenever they feel the show needs a little artificial Western flavor. When Wayne Hall, a promising New Jersey bull rider, performs, for example, sometimes the crowd is told he comes from his real home town of Piscataway and sometimes that he hails from Tulsa or some other place out thataway.
In Western rodeos the purses are bigger than in the East; consequently the entry lists are also longer and the competition tougher. While such things contribute to the splendor of Western rodeo, there is no reason for an Easterner to be ashamed of the local shows—nor any need for announcers to adulterate them with Western flavor. Rodeo is not and has never been a closed shop, for Westerners only. Competent Easterners who have gone West into the big arenas have always managed to hold their own, taking a fair share of the purses along with the bumps and the knocks. Harry Tompkins, the famous bull rider and all-rounder who won a bundle on the Western circuit in the 1950s, learned the trade in Peekskill. Indeed. Tompkins won the first of his eight national titles in the West a mere two years after taking up the sport.
Anyone who believes that only Westerners are good at their aboriginal game of rodeo can convince himself otherwise by reaching back into history precisely 100 years. At Deer Trail, Colo. in 1869 (the same year that the effete Eastern game called football was born) the cowhands of the Hash Knife, the Mill Iron and the Camp Stool ranches held the first rodeo contest of which there is any flimsy record. At that first rodeo staged by rough-and-ready men of the West, the title of Champion Broncobuster of the Plains was won, not by a Westerner or an Easterner, but—oh, my God—by an English cowpoke named Emilnie Gardenshire.
Last August, when rodeo returned to Madison Square Garden in New York after a 10-year lapse, the affair attracted 130 competitors from the East and West. The three classic riding events of rodeo—bareback, bull and saddle bronc—are scored by judges who are understandably human and possibly affected by a competitor's origin or his reputation. In these three judged events at the Garden the Westerners won about $12,500 of the total $13,809 offered. In steer wrestling, where the results are read from the cold hand of a stopwatch, the East and West split the purse of $5,684 right down the middle. In calf roping, the other stopwatch event, the East took a sliver more than the West, although statistically the honors certainly went to the Westerners since they were outnumbered in the event by more than three to one. When the Garden rodeo was done, the star and hardest working performer turned out to be a Western-Easterner: the 13-year-old, Oklahoma-born wonder horse named Buck. Lorenzo had brought Buck East and trained him to chase steers on a Penn Central Railroad siding that protrudes from under the overpass of a six-lane toll road in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx. (Buck is probably the only Oklahoma horse that ever learned to chase steers while Mercury Cougars were chasing Chevrolet Impalas overhead.) In the Garden, Buck made 32 appearances (far more than any other beast or man), serving as the mount for 16 of the 40 steer-wrestling competitors and winning more than $3,000.
While their talents are necessary, the cowboys of rodeo are only the supporting cast. It is the scrambling calf, the reluctant steer, the wild horse and the bull that really make the show and bring down the house. In professional rodeo a bucking bronc or bull must only deliver eight or 10 seconds of action at about every fourth performance. Considering the high price of hay and feed these days, that means the equine and bovine stars of rodeo are doing better by the hour than Barbra Streisand. There is, however, a difference. When the glamour of it pales, Streisand can always retire to Big Sur, Calif. and write her memoirs. The bronc or bull that tires of show biz and bucks no more usually goes to a cannery. Gentle readers, the next time you attend a large sport event, handle the hot dog you buy with awe and respect for it may be made of the remains of one of last year's rodeo stars. The 40� frank that you buy enwrapped in a roll at a ball game may contain the grit and gristle of a mighty bull that once threw the national champion, George Paul of Del Rio, Texas. In some hot dogs—who knows?—you may be getting the minced loin of a bronc that bucked off the best riders at Calgary, Pendleton or Cheyenne.
Rodeo flourishes in the East and can afford to play once again in a high-priced arena like Madison Square Garden primarily because today there is a dependable, highly theatrical and completely mixed-up rodeo herd of broncs, steers, cows, calves and bulls prospering in a small south Jersey community that is aptly called Cowtown. Although stars of the Cowtown herd have entertained Eastern audiences for some years and a few of them have played command performances out West, there are a number of people in high places who still do not admit that Cowtown exists. According to the U.S. Postal Department and the Census Bureau and the New Jersey Department of Highways and Rand McNally, there is no Cowtown. Although in a throbbing, busy week more than 20,000 gallons of gasoline are sold within the vague limits of Cowtown, none of the 13 gas companies doing business in New Jersey shows the town on its road map.