Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine

Life is funny
Dale "Gizmo" McCracken makes his living as a rodeo entertainer

by Heather Berry

Dale "Gizmo" McCracken keeps crowds entertained and the cowboys safe at rodeos across the United States.

The golf-cart-size ambulance zooms into the pasture and seems to stop on a dime as it comes to rest under an old oak tree. A sign alerts onlookers to “stay back 500 feet; driver chewin’ tobacco.” The door swings open and out jumps colorfully dressed Dale McCracken, known to crowds as “Gizmo,” the rodeo clown.

Dale, 43, has been jumping in and out of barrels, entertaining crowds and distracting 1,800 pounds of muscle, horns and fuzzy fury for the past 27 years in professional rodeo circuits from coast to coast as a professional rodeo clown.

“When I was 15, I came home from attending a PRCA rodeo in Cassville and told my dad and mom I was going to be a bullfighter,” says Dale. “I think Dad thought I should stick to breaking horses for him instead.”

Young Dale wasn’t dissuaded by his parents. He kept going to rodeos and soon he met Paul Spencer, a Missouri-based stock contractor for the American Cowboy Rodeo Association and International Professional Rodeo Association.

“Paul took me under his wing and showed me how to make the bulls buck and spin for the cowboys. And that became my job,” says the Barry Electric Cooperative member.

Dale applies make-up to create his character.

While traveling with Paul to rodeos, Dale met Norman Bryant, a well-known professional rodeo clown from Arkansas. The more time he spent with Norman, the more Dale knew he wanted to become a bullfighting clown. With Norman nearing retirement, he decided to teach Dale the art of clowning.

“There weren’t any rodeo clown colleges to attend. You either had what it took or you didn’t,” Dale says.

His main job as a clown is to keep the cowboys safe while entertaining the crowd. Being a barrel man is part of Dale’s act, but it’s also vital, as his clown antics with the barrel hide the serious part of his job in the arena.

“When a cowboy is riding, he usually doesn’t know where the chute is, the fence is or which end is up,” he says. “As a bullfighter, my job is to help distract the bull and give the cowboy time to get their bearings.”

When it comes to entertaining crowds, Dale turns on the full Gizmo charm for the fans. He might appear in character as Ozzy Osborne, Elvis or Willie Nelson — or he might introduce onlookers to the elephant hunter, fireman Lt. Ralph Rottenhose or his new character, a fat Barney Fife.

While he loves his job, clowning keeps Dale on the road much of the year.

"My family thought I was nuts when I began clowning," Dale says. "Now they're sure I am."

“We’re gone more than 200 days a year and hit 45 to 50 cities,” says Dale. He and his wife, Janice, now plan shorter trips because they want to be home with family, especially their 1-year-old granddaughter, Jaylen.

Dale says when you hire him, he’s yours from the moment the event begins until the last person in the stand leaves.

“I work a rodeo from the hello to the goodnight. I like to be in character for the entire event,” says Dale. “And I do clean, wholesome shows. No smut here; you could bring your preacher to see me perform.”

Dale says he wouldn’t be where he is today without the support of his family. When Janice isn’t running their store in Wheaton (appropriately called “Gizmo’s Stop and Shop, Please”) she’s in the bus crisscrossing the United States with Dale.

“It takes some pretty big money for me to leave the driveway,” says Dale. “ I’d just rather be home spending time with my family.”

He’s worked eight of the 12 Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association circuits in the United States and, in 2002, was nominated as Comedy Act of the Year by the PRCA.
Over the years, Dale’s broken arms and ribs too many times to count. In 1996, a run- in with a bull nearly killed the clown.

“I was in the barrel and a bull threw his horn into it,” he says. “His horn came through my eyelid, busted my cheekbone, broke my nose and messed up my sinuses pretty good.

“Getting car and house insurance isn’t a problem for me” says Dale, “but hospitalization is a whole different story.”

Only a slight scar tells the tale of that day. But an accident in 2000 nearly blew Dale’s hand off while performing at a rodeo in North Carolina.

Gizmo makes a fiery appearance. Photo courtesy of Dale McCracken/gizmomccracken.com.

“In the act, I pull an old shotgun out of my golf bag. I had my hand over the barrel and the hammer got hung,” says Dale, staring at the palm of his hand as if reliving the event. “I just about blew my hand off.”

It took seven surgeries in 11 days before doctors could tell Dale he might be able to keep all of his fingers. The incident was nearly enough to make Dale quit clowning around.

“While at home recovering, I prayed and asked the Lord if he wanted me to quit rodeo. And I asked him to give me a neon sign if I was to continue,” he says.

Dale didn’t have to wait long for his sign. The next day, he got the call inviting him to the prestigious Cheyenne Frontier Rodeo, the “granddaddy of them all” according to the bullfighting clown.

“I hung up from that call and said ‘Lord, I don’t get any brighter sign than that, do I?’”

You may contact Dale “Gizmo” McCracken at P.O. Box 492, Wheaton, MO 64874; by e-mail at gizmo@Mo-Net.com or visit his Web site at www.gizmomccracken.com.

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