Houston rodeo kicks off 75th year

Celebrating 75 years of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo calls for some serious cowboy fanfare: a new scoring system with more prize money than ever, the hottest concert ticket in the show's history and, of course, a return of the world's largest livestock exhibition.

When the event kicks off Tuesday, it also will feature a look back at its history, with a display showcasing the various cowboys, entertainers and visitors who roped their way into the rodeo over the years. As Houston grew and became more diverse, so did the show, which didn't even include a rodeo at first.

"We have watched the styles change, we've watched the music change," said Leroy Shafer, the show's chief operating officer, who has worked there since 1974, when cowboys wore bell bottoms. "But we were just as big a thing to the people of Houston in 1974 as we are today."

The event premiered in 1932 as the Houston Fat Stock Show and Livestock Exposition, when there were many more cattle in the region — about 2 million total — than people.

Nearly that many folks are expected to visit the show at Reliant Park this year. After two years of declining attendance, organizers are hoping to draw 1.7 million visitors — a slight increase over last year — though that wouldn't rival the all-time record of 1.89 million set in 2004. The rodeo left the Astrodome for its current digs at Reliant Stadium in 2003.

Festivities began last week with the trail ride, when about 6,000 riders made the trip to Houston, and the World's Championship Barb-B-Que Contest, which drew thousands of meat eaters. But neither of those events was part of the show when it began.

"In those early days, it was strictly a cattle show," said Coleman Locke, whose family exhibited cattle there the first year and every year since. "It was mostly a Brahman show."

From Autry to Elvis

The event was first held at Sam Houston Hall (built for the 1928 Democratic Convention where the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts now stands), but that was later torn down and replaced by the Sam Houston Coliseum.

The rodeo, horse show and downtown parade were added in the late 1930s, and Gene Autry, "The Singing Cowboy," debuted as the show's first star entertainer in 1942.

"A big crowd in those days was if we had 5,000 people, at that little coliseum," said Mike Wells, past president of the show who was about 6 when he saw Autry perform.

The list of entertainers has grown every year since then, with Elvis Presley in 1970 drawing one of the largest early crowds in the Astrodome, nearly 44,000. He proved to organizers that the masses would visit the rodeo so long as performers had general appeal, said Louis Pearce, who has been involved with the show since 1946.

"If 'The King' had come there and entertained, it must be a pretty good place to entertain," said Pearce, 90, a past president who serves on the executive committee.

Hot concerts sell out

This year's roundup of entertainers includes many familiar faces, as well as some new performers, including the Cheetah Girls and Hannah Montana, characters on the Disney Channel . All 70,000 tickets to their show were gone within three minutes of going on sale last month.

George Strait, scheduled to perform on the rodeo's first night, also is sold out, and Beyoncé and Rascal Flatts, both set to take the stage during Spring Break Stampede week, are expected to sell out soon. But beyond those performances, thousands of tickets are still available.

A new twist for sports fans this year is the rodeo's overhauled scoring system, which uses an elimination bracket to create a more exciting daily competition with more money at stake. Instead of accumulating points each round as in previous years, contestants will start from square one each night, with winners from previous contests pitted against winners, and losers pitted against losers. That means any competitor could win during the championship round, regardless of who picked up the most points in previous rounds.

The $1.2 million purse also is incentive for competitors to go "hell bent for leather," Shafer said.

"Rodeo has never been presented like this anywhere else," he said. "We know that it's going to take several years to educate our audience, but we think that this is going to really elevate rodeo."

Also new this year is Ranch Rodeo, featuring cowboys and cowgirls competing in traditional events including calf branding (with chalk, not fire) and steer mugging, or throwing and tying a yearling steer.

'Year of the Volunteer'

Behind it all are nearly 18,000 volunteers, whose involvement led organizers to dub this year's show "The Year of the Volunteer." Before each night's rodeo competition, volunteers will sing the Star-Spangled Banne r .

Volunteers organize every aspect of the show, serving on more than 90 committees, including ticket sales, horse-show announcers, school art auction and health. They spend an average of 68 hours of service each year organizing events, raising money and setting up the grounds.

They get free parking near the stadium and a badge that allows them into concerts, but no free tickets for seats. And each volunteer is required to become a show member for an annual $50 fee.

The main perk of the gig, aside from networking, is being involved in the production of the show. Volunteers also have the satisfaction of knowing their efforts help the tax-exempt charity provide scholarships to hundreds of college-bound students.

Since 1957, when organizers presented the first scholarship for $2,000, the number and amount of awards have increased dramatically.

This year, the show will award 532 college scholarships worth $12,000 each.

"Every time someone buys a ticket," said Michael Nathanson, who oversees the scholarship program, "they know they're investing in a young person."

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Source : http://www.chron.com/life/rodeo/article/Houston-rodeo-kicks-off-75th-year-1531609.php

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