With white knuckles, a weathered cowboy clings to an angry bucking bull as the dirt and sawdust flies. Just a few feet away, the ever-smiling Charlie “Too Tall” West peeks out of his barrel.
West is a barrelman, a rodeo clown who works to protect fallen cowboys from their bulls while keeping the crowd entertained. Just 4-foot-6, West also estimates he is the smallest person in his line of work.
“You can’t miss me,” he jokes as he rolls his custom-made barrel into the arena. “I’m the little guy in the barrel.”
West, 34, is performing in the Grand National Rodeo at the historic Cow Palace just outside San Francisco. It is one of about 25 rodeos he’ll travel to this year.
“Charrrllliiieee!” the announcer booms as the spotlight hits the diminutive clown in the center of the arena. Wearing oversized dungarees, suspenders and a polka-dot top hat, West tells the crowd of his brush with the meanest bull he’s ever seen.
At that moment, dog Ziggy bolts toward West from the sideline, wearing a horned headdress. West flees with exaggerated fear, and the crowd bursts into laughter.
“You just pick it up,” he said of his craft. “They have bullriding schools for that part of it, but for the funny part of it, I guess I get a lot of ideas from television.”
West, who lives in Loomis, Calif., has been around the rodeo since he was a kid; his mother was a rodeo secretary. He tried bullriding in high school until “the bulls got too big and I didn’t grow anymore.”
After graduation, West took off with friends to work some rodeos in Wyoming.
“Everyone said, ‘Chuck, you ought to get in the barrel. You ought to be a barrelman. You’d be the only one your size to do it,”’ West said.
The barrel in question, however, was too big and West had to stuff it with an old mattress he bought at the Salvation Army. Nonetheless, West was hooked and took up with a rodeo company when he returned to California.
“I’ve been thrown about 10 feet in the air. I’ve been tossed from one end of the arena to the other,” he said, “but I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
As livestock is herded around backstage, West prepares in the “clown room.” He shares the dressing room with the other rodeo clowns and trick roper Vince Bruce.
His girlfriend, Michelle Melville, entertains Ziggy while West applies his greasepaint and dons his costume.
“He’s good at what he does,” Melville said. “He’s pretty safe in the barrel, so I don’t worry about him. And the kids love him.”
Ziggy nips at a bandana tied to West’s waist as he looks over the night’s schedule.
“I’ve got to find out what spot they’re putting me into tonight,” he explains.
Making his way through the crowd, West is greeted by just about everyone he passes. A 6-footer named Steve asks to have his picture taken with him. “Thanks, Too Tall,” he says.
Cowboys in the crowd tip their hats to West, who has clearly earned their respect.
“If we get bucked off in the middle of the arena, the barrel gives us somewhere to go - sometimes that wall is just too far,” said Isaac Fletes of Woodland, Calif. “Plus, he keeps the crowd entertained. That’s the most important.”
West estimates he’s one of about 50 clowns who work with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. They’re all scheduled to get together in December at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
Sometimes he trades ideas with the other clowns, but West figures that “as a little guy, I’m kind of in my own arena.” He makes fun of his size in his act, sometimes working with his miniature horse, Thunder.
West realizes his job has an element of danger - bulls are unpredictable and significantly larger than he is - but he handles it with his usual sense of humor.
“Sometimes those bulls just don’t want to cooperate,” he said.
His main function is entertainment, and that’s why he loves his job.
“If we can take people and put a smile on their face and make them forget their problems, and make the kids laugh, then it’s all worth it right there,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”