Not Clowning Around

Hall of Fame bullfighter Wick Peth set the bar for rodeo’s guardian angels.
American Cowboy Picture

Bullfighter Wick Peth is famous for many things, but his courage at the Snake River Stampede in Idaho some 50 years ago impresses even today’s rodeo clowns and bullfighters. Rider Billy Miles was knocked out and hung-up, dangling limply from the back of a bucking, spinning bull. Peth—5’ 6”, built like a tank, wearing his signature frizzy wig and no pads—leapt over the bull’s horns, straddled its shoulders, freed Miles’s hand from the bull rope, and then kept the bull’s attention by smacking its nose until other cowboys could drag unconscious Miles to safety. “He’s my hero,” says five-time Wrangler Jeans World Bullfighting Champion Rob Smets.

Displays of calculated derring-do notwithstanding, Peth hardly stood out. He started his career in 1948 as a typical rodeo clown, trying to save cowboys and amuse audiences, but his comedy routines, which included handstands, proved less than hysterical. “About as funny as a funeral in the rain,” described one early announcer.

Peth didn’t care. While other clowns practiced slapstick sketches involving brooms or brassieres, he focused on protecting fallen riders. Working rodeos across the country, he developed a reputation for quickness, dedication, and an almost instinctive understanding of bull behavior, which he attributes to having grown up messing around with roughstock on a big spread in Bow, Wash.

“He liked to play harder than most men fought,” says longtime friend George Doak. “He’d pick you up and throw you in the lake—which wasn’t real funny, but he thought it was.” When, in 1953, Peth debuted the fi rst clown skirt, those denim cut-offs popular today, it wasn’t meant as a gag. He had simply forgot his own baggy pants, borrowed a pair from a barrel man, and snipped off the legs at the crotch to allow more freedom of movement. “You don’t need another funny guy,” Peth, now 80, remembers telling
rodeo producers. “You need a bullfighter.” And so they did. Peth’s career spanned an impressive 37 years, ending in 1985. According to historian Gail Woerner, author of Fearless Funnymen, he was the original bullfi ghter, the grandfather of
today’s PRCA and PBR bullfighters. Put another way, he was the first rodeo clown skilled enough at saving cowboys to make a living without clowning.

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