Send in the clowns rodeo clowns, that is, along with the bronc-riding cowboys, barrel racing cowgirls, the beauty queens and brute bulls, the wild-eyed livestock and the cheering crowd.
Year-long efforts from the Payson Professional Rodeo Committee and its supporters have culminated in the biggest and best spring rodeo on record. There are more contestants, prize money and spectators, and better facilities, organization and quality of events.
The rodeo's entertainment value and the skills of its contestants are its obvious attractions. But there is more to the PRCA Gary Hardt Memorial Rodeo than roughstock competition and timed bronc rides.
It helps preserve the western heritage of the Rim country, reinforces the cowboy flavor of Payson, and fosters camaraderie among the people who organize, sponsor and compete in the events.
To Rodeo Boss Bill Armstrong, there is one more aspect of the rodeo which is the most significant.
"It's about the community," he said, his voice unwavering in his conviction. "Every dime we make goes back to the people of Payson."
In the past 12 years, PRCA has donated $63,000 to community causes and organizations including:
Scholarships, Christmas functions for children, school sports awards, uniforms and travel expenses, school cheerleaders, FFA, roofing and electrical materials for seniors, roofing for the Time Out Shelter, Miss Rodeo and the Top Youth Program.
At this time of year, the attention and efforts of the rodeo committee are taken with logistical preparation and production. But when the party is over, its focus shifts to the youth and the seniors of the Payson area.
"We do what we can for people in need," Armstrong says. "Principals of schools let us know what kids need clothes or shoes or other assistance, and the committee sometimes pays for fees and uniforms for kids to play sports. But this isn't just about rodeo and sports. We have $5,000 to $10,000 scholarships for high school students. And we've donated to band and choir."
PRCA secretary, Ruth Klaver, adds, "We made a contribution for playground equipment at Julia Randall Elementary School, and we have a sponsor of the Miss Rodeo Arizona Pageant by contributing to the Rodeo Queen's custom-made belt buckle every year. We also donate to the Women's Pro Rodeo Association."
Klaver says that seniors may have a variety of needs from home repairs to funds for medical debts. The committee contributes what it can in such situations. "We put a roof on a woman's house and we brought firewood to some people who had run out of it. With a big yard sale we helped pay a hospital bill. If we hear of people in town who are in need, we try to help them out."
The capacity for assistance has gradually increased since the PRCA incorporated in the early 1990s. Named for a local rodeo cowboy, the Gary Hardt Memorial Rodeo has seen attendance and proceeds double. It has been nominated three times as the best small outdoor rodeo in the country, and won that title in 1993.
Prior to that, the rodeo committee worked with the Payson Chamber of Commerce to put on the "Old Timers' Rodeo" in the spring and the "World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo" in August. The August Doin's is still a joint effort by the PRCA and the Chamber of Commerce with some profits going to support the Chamber. But the spring rodeo is solely a PRCA event. With no salaries to pay, all profits go to the committee and in turn to the community.
The increase in attendance, assistance to local people, a new arena, and national honors are welcome changes to Payson's spring rodeo. But there was another change that was pivotal to the rodeo's success.
"It's not the Old Timers' anymore," Armstrong explains. This was once the rodeo where veteran cowboys, 40 years and older, could keep their hand in the sport and enjoy the excitement of the crowds and competition. But the PRCA identified a few problems with that venue.
"The roughstock events draw the crowds," Armstrong said. "That's what people come to see, and there were not enough veteran rodeo cowboys to compete in those events." Without plenty of bull riding, bareback and saddle bronc riding, attendance was down. There was also no national sponsorship for the Old Timers' event.
"When the rodeo committee incorporated as a professional rodeo association, we qualified for the same national sponsors as the August rodeo Dodge Trucks, Justin Boots, Wrangler, Budweiser."
With a $35,000 to $40,000 overhead, those deep pockets are vital in covering the costs of a stock contractor, feed for the animals, purse for contestants, advertising, and use of the arena.
Local businesses contribute substantially by sponsoring an event or a chute or by paying for signage. As a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, the PRCA can accept upwards of $500 tax-deductible donations from businesses. Their involvement is significant enough that Armstrong contends, "Without the merchants of Payson there wouldn't be a rodeo."
Volunteers of the rodeo committee handle much of the preparation. Their numbers can vary from 100 to 140 and up to 175 during rodeo time. "People from all walks of life are members," Armstrong says. "There are lawyers, doctors, business people, teachers, retirees, city council people. They all donate their time, and there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes."
The cooperation received from the city elicits praise and gratitude from the Rodeo Boss to the Parks and Recreation Department, the city manager and city council.
This coordination of work and resources has resulted in two high quality rodeos a year. "It's unusual for a town to have more than one rodeo," Armstrong says. Both present the same categories, use the same stock contractor and see some of the same cowboys and cowgirls compete. The purse may be smaller for the contestants in the spring but the gate fee is also less.
"Admission is $9 compared to $12 in August," Armstrong emphasizes, "so more of the local people can attend. This is good family entertainment at an affordable price." He also notes that during this time of year, the Arizona sun is not as intense for spectators as it is in August.
As for his own job description, Armstrong says, "There are committee heads for all the different functions and I do whatever needs to be done. I guess I'm a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. My job is mostly organizational."
After 18 years as Rodeo Boss, Armstrong is expert at organization and promotion. But he is the master of heart for the rodeo and for the people it serves.
"The rodeo gets better and more organized every year," he says. "We need the public to come out and support us."