Lecile had to pay for those new tires on his “clown trailer.”
Blame it on heavy rain canceling the Wild Bill Hickok Rodeo Golf Tournament where rodeo clown-funnyman Lecile Harris was scheduled to play golf with Don Nebelsick of Don’s Tire & Supply in Abilene, and outcome said to determine payment of a wager for Harris’ trailer tires.
However, Harris, known almost anywhere by most anyone as “Lecile,” did claim “his $100-hole-in-one-bet” with rodeo announcer Mike Mathis during his “golf act” at the previous evening Abilene rodeo performance.
Although Lecile “eventually manipulated” his “$100-ball” into the hole with his “12-iron,” settlement in that gamble was never made, due to backside warming by a flaring-powder-wad from the shotgun of a disgruntled “popcorn salesman,” who kept interrupting Lecile’s concentration, while attempting to make the wagered-golf-shot.
Crowd-approving-applause accompanied by grins on faces of everyone in the bleachers pacified Lecile’s “bruises.”
And, the tall, thin, gangly, awkward-looking, yet most-humorous, world-famous always red-and-white checkerboard-shirt-clad “Emmett Kelly-semblance” clown lumbered out of the arena tugging along his oversize-cumbersome golf cart.
Within minutes, a big “Coors” clown barrel rolled into the arena, and Lecile was back jiving with the crowd, the announcer and contestants.
It’s all part of the life of what many consider the best-in-the-business of being a rodeo clown, and readily verified by the accolades bestowed upon Lecile. Foremost being the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Clown of the Year title four times, and continued demand for his appearances at rodeos throughout the county.
However, Lecile clarified, “I’ll do 80 to 100 performances a year now; the rodeos that I want to. Not the 140, like I did so many years.
“I’ve earned that right, after 58 years working rodeos,” contended Lecile, 76, in an early afternoon visit after he’d bicycled seven miles around Abilene, when his scheduled golf round had been canceled.
“I used to run three miles one day, and then six miles the next, but my knees were wearing out. The doctor told me to ride a stationary bike, but that was too boring. I ride a real bicycle, generally about nine miles, but not every day,” Lecile verified.
Despite record longevity, and what would likely also be record public performances in his career, Lecile is most tenacious in preparation.
Slight signs of nervousness even showed as he fidgeted the evening before adjusting the portable microphone, after putting on the “old-time tramp-looking” makeup in the same manner done since he was 18 years old.
Any tension disappeared when Lecile lumbered into the arena, snapping his baggy jean suspenders.
Majoring in animal science, Lecile played college football and was even a professional boxer for a time.
“I started my rodeo career riding bulls, but was then asked to fill in as a bullfighter, too. I continued riding and fighting bulls at the same rodeos for a couple of years, and decided I could make a better living as a bullfighter.
“In those days, clowns always doubled as bullfighters. The comedy came along with it as part of the job and was just natural for me,” Lecile reflected. “If a man had good comedy, he could be a fair bullfighter, and still get along.”
However, the record shows Lecile was accomplished at both. Talented and innovative, Lecile developed moves, methods and the business of studying a bull’s habit’s, making some of his moves legendary, and copied by the most prominent bullfighters today.
Incorporating “hillbilly slang” into his clown-joking repertoire, Lecile was advised by a college English professor: “If you’re going to make a living destroying ‘the King’s language,’ you need to at least know proper English first.”
Lecile took the prof at his word and has a college minor in English, an unusual combination for an animal science major, and rodeo clown.
Yet, there’s not too much typical about Lecile. “I must extend a large amount of credit for my early success to working for the Longhorn Rodeo Company, owned by Loretta Lynn, with three performances nearly every weekend throughout the summer in the eastern part of the country,” credited Lecile.
An artist as well, Lecile started painting signs and lettering trucks, etc., for committees and others when working the rodeos.
Knowing there needed to be a “backup profession” if he was ever injured, multi-talented Lecile soon had a full blown sign company that split off to also include commercial printing, telephone ventures and even a construction company.
“I’d work four days in my businesses and go to rodeos weekends,” Lecile said.
Additionally, he was a “session drummer,” and played with the Echoes band in the ’50s, and the Capris in the ’60s.
Even those who have never heard of Lecile as a clown, or his other diverse talents, could remember his reoccurring role as the checkered-shirted, straw-hatted, clear-faced farmer with slapstick humor on more than 260 Hee Haw programs.
“I was on Hee Haw for ten years, and those programs are still airing as reruns on RFD television. That also led to several movie parts, and making commercials, both which I still do,” Lecile said.
Among his movies are Walking Tall – Final Chapter, The Last Days of Frank and Jessie James (with Johnny Cash), and Elvis (the TV series).
Relating to his clown makeup, Lecile reflected, “I’ve always portrayed an older man character. I used to draw the wrinkles on, and now it’s amazing how accurate the natural wrinkles are to that today.”
Of course, patterning his style after Emmett Kelly, Lecile’s an admirer of W.C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy, Red Skelton and the Pink Panther cartoon character.
“They’ve all had some influence on my sarcastic old time hillbilly comedy. I’ve had a lot of fun with it. I’ve really enjoyed everything,” Lecile evaluated.
For more than 25 years, Lecile’s son, Matt Harris, worked as a barrel man at rodeos, assisting with his dad’s acts, and also was in charge of sound and lighting at major rodeos.
“Matt retired from rodeo last year, and now a friend of mine, actually a former fireman, travels with me taking over the ‘popcorn salesman,’ and similar parts in my shows,” Lecile said.
Acts, skits and characters presented by Lecile are legendary, some dating back more than 40 years, but they remain timeless today. Among them: “Seventh Inning Stretch,” “Touch of Class,” “Town Pump” and “BR 549.”
Other children of Lecile and his wife Ethel, an opera singer, are Chuck, a drummer for The Outpatients band, and Christi, a former dancer for the Beach Boys entertainment group. The Harris’ have four grandchildren.
In 58 years involvement with rodeo, Lecile has seen lots of changes. “I’ve been flexible and changed, too. Cowboys have become more specialized, and the money at rodeos has increased.
“Most of the changes have been welcomed, and all for the better. The sport is in good shape for continuous growth,” Lecile evaluated.
Despite what might seem a hectic rodeo travel schedule, being in Mississippi a week earlier, then Nebraska right before Abilene, and Colorado the day after, Lecile has “no plans to retire.”
However, the “funniest-clown-of-all” admitted: “Someday I’ll have to stop traveling the rodeo circuit. But, I’ve always tried to keep my body and my mind in good shape, so when the time comes, I will walk away. It’s not that I won’t have anything else to do.”