BEAUSEJOUR -- Clowns make us laugh and, then again, sometimes they can make us cry.
Gord Mark, a.k.a. Gordo Bones, Manitoba's rodeo clown the past 17 years, recalled an event several years ago where he interacted with the audience by throwing soft footballs into the crowd.
On one throw, someone reached in front of a little girl and snatched the ball away before it got to her. Mark went into the crowd to right the injustice, gave her a little toss, and they had a sweet little exchange.
He didn't think anything of it until he received an email later from her parents. The girl had witnessed the drowning death of her brother and had withdrawn into a shell ever since. His little interaction had been a breakthrough. So the family started showing up at Mark's performances and a friendship blossomed. "She became my good-luck charm," he said.
Mark is mostly about laughs, though, and the end of this year's rodeo season will mark his final hurrah. He's going bumbling, barrelling and bull-fleeing into the sunset, after Beausejour's Double B Rodeo and Country Fair the next two days.
"For me to make someone laugh is the best feeling in the world," said Mark, 52.
Not all rodeo fans are sweet kids, however. One time, wandering into a crowd to kibitz and shake hands, he reached out to one man and woke up on the ground. The man cold-cocked him. "He'd been in the beer gardens too long," said Mark.
He's been dinged a few times in 17 years. One of the big acts for a rodeo clown is to crouch inside a custom-made aluminum barrel during bull-riding events. A bull-rider tries to last eight seconds -- "The toughest eight seconds in sports," said Mark -- gets thrown, and runs for the fence. A bullfighter comes out to distract the bull away. At the same time, Mark will stand up in the barrel taunting the bull. If a bull charges, Mark ducks inside at the last second.
One time a bull smacked the barrel so it flipped up onto its neck, then flicked Mark and the barrel over the fence. "The power of a bull is unbelievable," Mark said.
Another time a bull's horn got stuck inside the barrel opening and dislocated Mark's jaw and broke his thumb. Another time, a young, hornless bull got its entire head stuck in the barrel opening. It reared back and ran around blindly with Mark and the barrel on its head. That lasted about 15 seconds. Mark wasn't hurt "but I was covered with bull snot from head to toe."
It's all in fun. "When the barrel with the clown inside gets smacked, the crowd loves it." And him? "The adrenalin is unbelievable. It's no different than the guy who gets on the back of the bull; the same reason a guy jumps out of airplane. Adrenalin is probably the most powerful drug on Earth."
Mark lives in Petersfield but commutes to Beausejour to his day job as service manager at a dealership, Melnick Motors. He got his start when the rodeo clown at the Selkirk's Triple S Fair and Rodeo couldn't make it and asked Mark, who was helping organize the event, to sub.
He enjoyed it but it took four years to get established and earn a decent paycheque. Once he did, he found the pay was pretty good and he considered even going full-time, but he'd started too late at age 35. He's retiring now because he wakes up sore too often and can't do his act with the rigour he once could. "It's a lucrative and dying art. Not many guys are doing it," he said.
There are about 50 rodeos a year in Manitoba, and Mark has performed at most of them. He's clowned at rodeos from southern Ontario to Vancouver Island. He incorporated his own bull named Pet into his act for a few years. "I'd tell people I knew how to ride a bull and then jump on it backwards and scream, 'It's got no head!' " He also used a pet duck named Romeo in his act. He would bring Romeo out on a leash and later pretend it was chasing him when actually Romeo was following him; it followed him everywhere.
He gets up in sequin costumes and has about 30 inflatable costumes such as an inflatable Elvis, sumo wrestler and an extra-large ballet dancer. It helps he has a pyrotechnic licence so he can blow things up, too. He performs at children's burn wards and seniors homes.
The clown is a crucial feature at rodeo, filling in lulls and unscheduled delays. "When it comes to filling in dead spots and getting the crowd going, there probably isn't a better guy out there than Gord," said Manitoba rodeo announcer and livestock auctioneer Ward Cutler.
Mark is the only Manitoban to become so successful in rodeo clowning, said Cutler. "For the sport of rodeo, it's going to be a very sad day" when Gordo Bones puts away the face paints.
After Beausejour, Mark wraps up his farewell tour with a small gig in Saskatchewan and the indoor Bull-o-Rama in Eriksdale Oct. 19.