Bull’s Eye

March 1, 2004 by  
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It speaks volumes about Houston that its largest social event of the year is a rodeo and livestock show. This annual hoedown also reminds us that, while ‘Houston’ is our city’s given name, the family name remains ‘Texas.’ So, for a couple of weeks we put on our mud-caked, ostrich-skin Lucchese boots and “Go Texan,” mixing our past with our present, our rural roots with our space-age uniqueness. Who else takes light rail to watch chuck wagons race? If the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo has cows and cowboys, hats and boots, it also has art judging, teachers teaching teachers, academic scholarships and many other pursuits not normally associated with kickers. Considering all its activities, “the Show,” as officials like to call it, is becoming more like the State Fair of Texas than a Saturday night at Gilley’s.

Leroy Shafer, who was the Show’s sixth employee and just celebrated his 30th anniversary with the organization, is the assistant general manager for the marketing, entertainment and presentations department. As such, he has pretty well seen it all, especially dealing with the stars. “We pay competitive rates for entertainment. We have to. In fact, in all the years of negotiating with entertainers, only three ever gave us a major break in price. Then there was Conway Twitty who donated his entire fee. The first time he came, he was just great – going around greeting people, getting in his bus and visiting sick kids. We had paid him $40,000. Later, we were talking to his manager about a second appearance and he pointed out that Twitty had three more No. 1 hits. He said, “This year it’s going to be $50,000.” We agreed, but then the manager called back and said that Twitty got furious at him for upping the fee. A little later Twitty himself called and said, “Tell you what, would you accept a $50,000 donation to your scholarship fund?” We did.”

Shafer notes that the rodeo officials don’t just go out and sign up any hot act. They have a very complicated computerized system which is “research oriented.” Into the mix they put several factors including how well the act will draw, what night of the week would be best (different acts draw better some nights than others) and the price tag. Then they come up with 20 names. “We get about 60 to 70 percent of those acts,” Shafer says. “The reason we fail to get some stars is that we just can’t afford them. We’d love to get the Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen, but the ticket price would be too high. A second reason is that at one time – it seems to be getting better – the agents would say, “A rodeo? We don’t play county fairs.” The third reason is the stage. Some performers now have their own stages, which are 80 to 200 feet wide. Also, our stage rotates and they always want to have their backs to the stage and face the audience. But we are state-of-the-art in entertainment presentation. When everyone was looking at all those huge TV sets in Reliant Stadium during the Super Bowl, they were ours.”

Shafer has dealt with all kinds of stars with strange demands in their contract riders. “But the strangest was an entertainer – I won’t say who – who demanded that in his dressing room he had to have a new commode, never been used, and it had to be black porcelain,” says Shafer. “We couldn’t find such a commode; it had to be special ordered. So, we just got a white one and had our shop paint it black. I don’t know if he ever used it, but we didn’t hear a complaint.” A good question is why this rural and agricultural event has not only grown but has ballooned, even as southeast Texas has become more urban due largely to immigrants from out of state who never saw a rodeo. “There are a few simple reasons for the enormous growth,” says Shafer. “The single most important reason is that it’s fun. It’s fun for the community volunteers who come from every ZIP code-plus-four in the county. It’s fun for the exhibitors, for the top corporations in Houston who influence their clients and associates to attend. It is as much a tradition in Houston as the Mardi Gras is in New Orleans or the Rose Parade in Los Angeles or the running of the bulls in Pamplona. People feel real good knowing it’s a charity.”

The origin of the Show is well known to native Houstonians, but others may be in the dark. The idea of a show was hatched in January 1931 at a lunch meeting of seven men at the Texas State Hotel. The next year, the Houston Fat Stock Show and Livestock Exposition debuted at the Democratic Convention Hall. The rodeo, horse show and downtown parade didn’t begin until six years later, in 1938, the same year the livestock show was moved to the Sam Houston Coliseum.

Over the years, the whole operation grew and changed. New events were added, new programs were set up, bigger names were brought in. Today, those seven men who started the project would not recognize their baby.

While all the cowpeople and singing stars provide the entertainment, there is a very serious side to the hoopla: education. Every year, the Show awards scholarships to Texas high school seniors who are headed to a Texas (no out-of-state) college or university. The students have to be U.S. citizens, a policy announced a few years back, which touched off a brief row with some immigrant advocates. The scholarship used to be just for studying agriculture; but since Texas has become such an urban state, the money is good for other majors. Last year, 1,785 students were attending 92 Texas colleges and universities on scholarships from the Show. Also last year, $7.5 million was committed to scholarships and educational programs including more than $3 million in the Houston area. Since the scholarship program began in 1957, almost $100 million has been awarded.

The rodeo and livestock folks have other ways to distribute the wealth. One is judging, and in some cases auctioning off, various animals – steers, heifers, turkeys, broilers, lambs, goats, barrows, rabbits, cavies (guinea pigs), horses, llamas or alpacas. Last year, there were 14,944 junior livestock entries. Each youngster who participates in the auction is guaranteed some money toward a scholarship.

A few years ago, there were some scandals at various youth livestock auctions, including the one at the HLS&R, because the bidding got so high and the young exhibitors could walk off with fortunes. “That was one of my low points,” says Shafer. “It was in 1983, and Red Adair bought a steer, so it was big national news. Later, we found out the steer had been improperly owned and groomed. The animal was supposed to have been in the possession of the exhibiter from July 1 until it was shown here.” After the auction, Shafer discovered the steer had actually been in the possession of a veterinarian until right before the show. Today, there is a cap on how much money each winner can receive, and most of the money paid over that cap is distributed to the general scholarship fund.

The record bids are astronomical. The Waggoner Foundation – June and Virgil, Dick Wallrath – Champion Ranch and RSMIS Foundation once paid $600,001 for a steer, and David and B.J. Boothe, Chad Clay, T.C. and Misty Crawford and Darryl and Lori Schroeder put down $150,000 for three chickens (broilers are sold as a pen of three). Then, there is the calf scramble. Since that event began in 1942, $7,509,500 has been awarded in certificates and bonuses for the purchase of 16,440 animals. But the work just begins for these youngsters. They are responsible for the care and feeding of their heifer, filling in monthly reports. Then they bring their charge back to the livestock show the next year for an inspection.

It is not just our young farmers and ranchers who benefit. Cowboys got couth, too. Most Houstonians don’t know this, but the Show runs a student artists’ show called the School Art Program. It began in 1963 with 700 entries. Today, more than 300,000 entries pour in from 90 different school districts. The works can be in oil, watercolors, charcoal, ceramics and clay, all with a Western flavor. Just as with the youths’ livestock, these art works are auctioned off. Last year, the Grand Champion Work of Art went for a record-breaking $135,000.

There are several other programs such as special tours for children to show them all about agriculture. Last year, 23,000 children took the tours. Then there is the International Program for visitors from abroad to show them something about Texas agriculture. In 2003, 1,844 visitors from 41 countries took part. The Show launched an ongoing program to train school teachers of students in the pre-kindergarten through second grade in specialized reading and classroom management skills. As with everything else the Show touches, this operation started small and now has grown to include 370 classrooms throughout 25 schools and two education centers in the Houston, Aldine and North Forest independent school districts.

So, pardner, this year when you saddle up your Lexus and put on your mud-caked, ostrich-skin Lucchese boots to “Go Texan,” remember the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo is for a good cause. Do I hear two thousand? Two hundred thousand? Sold to that person in mud-caked, ostrich-skin Lucchese boots.

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