By Graham Sweeney
In the words of celebrated Collierville native Lecile Harris, “rodeo clowning is a combination of everything I’ve ever loved doing in life.”
With a career that has spanned 58 years and seen hundreds of fractured bones, gallons of self-applied clown make-up, dozens of television appearances and millions of delighted fans, Harris’ work as an award winning rodeo clown and bullfighter is an accurate representation of the many passions in his active life.
Harris began transforming arena dirt into his own comedic-but-perilous stage in 1955 at a rodeo in Arlington.
“We heard there would be some pretty cowgirls there,” Harris remembered. “That’s why we went.”
When one of the bullfighters didn’t show for the event, Harris, who was already interested in riding bulls, asked the rodeo operators for a chance to fill in.
“Well, I did a good enough job that they paid for my entry fee (to ride),” he said.
Harris, who had just graduated from Collierville High School and was already splitting time drumming for local rock band The Echoes and painting signs for businesses like the McGinnis Service Station and Dairy Freeze, quickly became a mainstay at rodeos throughout the Mid-South.
But the tall, athletic frame which had helped Harris net a football scholarship to the University of Tennessee at Martin didn’t provide him with a low center of gravity and eventually made it impractical for him to ride bulls.
“I was too tall to ride,” he said. “There is just so much whip on you that they just sling you off.”
So, Harris began to hone his skills as a bullfighter and rodeo entertainer during the summer months, while attending college, playing concerts and performing various odd jobs the rest of the year.
During one stretch of winter, Harris even found himself backing a group of musicians that included rockabilly pioneer Bill Black, saxophonist and Hi Records recording artist Ace Cannon and Carl McVoy, who is often credited with teaching his younger cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis, how to play the piano.
“There really aren’t any rodeos in the winter,” Harris said. “So I stayed busy pursuing my other passions. But as soon as I smelled onions, I was back on the rodeo trail again.”
On the rodeo circuit, Harris began to earn a reputation as an expert bullfighter who also understood the value of entertaining an audience.
“Back then,” he said, “you were a clown and a bullfighter. They required it. You had to do comedy and pull the bull away if a rider got in trouble.”
Much like a drummer holds a song together by keeping a steady beat, Harris became adept at unifying a rodeo performance with improvised and comical banter, a talent he calls “walking and talking.”
“The arena is full of cracks and crevices,” Harris explained. “The animals might be acting up or something else is going wrong. I consider myself the glue that holds the show together so people don’t know they are sitting there through a breakdown or dead spot.”
Eventually, Harris gained enough exposure as an innovative entertainer that he was hired by country musician Loretta Lynn to perform in her rodeo company.
While employed by Lynn, Harris’ repertoire of comedy acts ballooned to levels previously unheard of in the industry. During that time, he also worked as a writer and actor for the Hee Haw television show for five seasons.
“Most rodeo clowns have three or four acts that they do,” Harris said. “I’ve created more than 20.”
Along with creating comedy acts, Harris designed and fabricated intricate stage props, many of which became nearly as recognizable as their creator.
Harris built elaborate props for acts like BR-549, an exploding robot with a name referencing a phone number on Hee Haw, and Wrangler Roadster, which involves a car that splits in half, in his personal shop.
It wasn’t until1988 that a 52-year-old Harris decided to hang it up as a bullfighter and focus exclusively on his clown routine.
“I retired about 20 years later than most,” he said laughing. “It was the quickness that had helped me with my bullfighting. I just didn’t have it anymore.”
While quickness was certainly a major reason for his success in the rodeo arena, Harris’ attention to details also made him a widely respected bullfighter.
“My style of bullfighting was totally different from everyone else’s because I was from east of the Mississippi River,” he noted. “Most of your rodeos were out west. Because I hadn’t grown up seeing any bullfighters, I hadn’t learned any of their habits.
“So,” he continued, “I learned to work real close to the bull. I tried to stay right on them so that if I got hit, I got more of a bump than a freight train.”
Noting that fear never entered his mind when entering the arena, Harris said he never considered himself “bullet proof.”
“I just always thought that I was capable of not getting beat,” he said. “Every time I ever got caught, I felt like it was my fault and that I could correct it the next time.
“If a bull got me down a couple of times,” he continued, “I got to where I craved him.”
While proud of the work he once did to protect bucked cowboys from their four-legged aggressors, Harris, who in 2007 was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame, perhaps takes more delight in the comical entertainment his eponymous clown character brings to audiences across the world.
“When I step into the arena,” he said, “I become Lecile the clown. It is a character I have worked on for a long time.”
Harris said years of studying Emmett Kelly, Red Skelton, Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields and even the Pink Panther helped sharpen his “old man” stage persona.
“All these things put together make Lecile,” he laughed.
While he no longer performs 140 shows a year, Harris, who is married with three adult children, still enjoys the response he receives from a crowd while performing his trademark character.
“I always wanted my character to be an old man,” he said. “I practiced walking like and old man and everything else. Well, I finally made it to where I don’t have to pretend.”