Entertainer Vince Bruce was one of the greatest. Click here for story and video.
By Laura Downey
It’s hard to talk about trick roping without the conversation turning to England-born cowboy Vince Bruce, who died in September from pancreatic cancer at the young age of 56. Known as the “Wizard of Whips and Ropes,” he mesmerized audiences with unusual tricks and a unique routine. The ultimate showman, he wowed audiences at rodeos and was invited to perform on Broadway, too.
Bruce met his inspiration, Tex McLeod, while growing up in Great Britain. Bruce fell in love with rope twirling and quick whips, and learned to master his own routine under the instruction of his father. By the age of 12, he already had a regular Friday-night gig at a local country club. Bruce honed his skills as an entertainer and trick roper with travelling circuses and theatre clubs, where he also learned how to make audiences erupt in laughter. He came to the U.S. in 1983 and performed the halftime act for the Harlem Globetrotters. He also scored the starring role in the Broadway hit the Will Rogers’ Follies.
He eventually transitioned from the theater to rodeo, where he was a stalwart for 21 years. As a member of the PRCA, he performed at all the major events, including the Calgary Stampede, Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, Pendleton Round-Up, and made four appearances at the National Finals Rodeo.
“He was the greatest trick roper I had ever seen. No one has ever made it look as easy as he did,” says Casey Martin, who grew up watching Bruce at his dad’s (a stock contractor) rodeos and recalls Bruce giving him his first trick rope and teaching him his first tricks. “That’s the kind of guy he was; he took time to teach kids.”
Bruce had many trademark tricks, but Dave Martin, Casey’s father, remembers one in particular: “Every time Vince would perform, he would have this cactus on stage. He would hang his hat on the cactus, and after his routine he would wrap the rope around the cactus, crack it, and his hat would fly off and land right on his head.”
This sense of showmanship was part of what made him better than the rest. He would also give a newspaper to an audience member during his routine, and while the audience member was reading it, he would use his whip to cut it down to the size of a matchbox. Bruce was constantly outdoing himself and always trying to better his act. He never felt that he had reached his peak and practiced constantly to make sure that he never left an audience unsatisfied.
In 1990, Bruce brought his wife, Annie, in to the act. She would sing while he rode in on the back of two horses, encircling them with his rope.
“He had a great sense of humor,” says Dave Martin. “You could always count on Vince to tell you how he felt about something.”
This past April, Bruce performed on one of the greatest stages in the land, New York City’s Carnegie Hall, where he appeared along with stars like James Taylor at an event to celebrate the hall’s 120th anniversary. Although he would have told you that J.W. Stoker was the best, Bruce leaves a trail not easily followed by anyone.
Bruce performing at the Calgary Stampede in 2001. (Photo courtesy Frank Holt)