A Bay Area Rodeo at the Cow Palace

San Francisco may not seem like a cow town, but it still hosts one of the biggest rodeos in the nation. It's held at the Cow Palace, an iconic venue famous for livestock shows, Grateful Dead concerts and the 1964 GOP Convention that nominated Barry Goldwater for president. John McChesney reports.

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From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

A legendary rodeo is trying to hang on in San Francisco. This past week, the grand national rodeo drew decent crowds at the city's famous Cow Palace. But as NPR's John McChesney reports, San Francisco's rodeo days could go the way of the cattle drive.

(Soundbite of rodeo announcer)

JOHN McCHESNEY reporting:

Wearing his signature white Stetson, Cotton Rosser gallops into the arena. If you want to know anything about the Cow Palace and the rodeo, you ask Cotton Rosser, who rode broncs here in 1946 when Gene Autry still sang at the rodeo. In an office piled with riding tack, he tells me he's worried.

Mr. COTTON ROSSER (Cow Palace, Retired Rodeo Rider): It's been a tough sell for the people in San Francisco. Most people have to come from Fresno, from San Jose, from Santa Rosa, from Sacramento to the Cow Palace.

McCHESNEY: The Cow Palace, which looks like a gigantic Quonset hut, was built in the 1930s by the Roosevelt Administration near the old stockyards. The first rodeo was held here in 1941, two weeks before Pearl Harbor. People came from all over the West to what used to be the most important rodeo in the country.

Mr. ROSSER: San Francisco was at one time about a Western a town as you could get into, you know. And of course, as you say now, it's changed completely and the Cow Palace is struggling.

McCHESNEY: Rosser puts part of the blame on animal rights activists in San Francisco, where rodeos are outlawed. Fortunately, he says, the Cow Palace lies just outside the city limits. He says every once in awhile, a movie like Urban Cowboy will give the industry a boost, but he's not sure about the gay cowboy movie, Brokeback Mountain, even in San Francisco.

Mr. ROSSER: I don't think that's done a hell of a lot for the rodeo business, I don't think. In fact, I was at a luncheon yesterday in San Francisco and they were kidding everybody about it. And they said, Them damn guys were sheep herders. They weren't cowboys.

McCHESNEY: But Rosser says he still has hope of drawing more San Francisco fans because bull riding is a fast growing sport.

Mr. ROSSER: People want extreme sports. We got two guys in the hospital now, three guys. We have the roughest, toughest, fiercest, finest, most exciting damn sport in the world, period. Rodeo.

McCHESNEY: He has a point. Out on the arena when you watch a cowboy squirm down onto a ton of gristle and muscle in a tight chute, waiting for the gate to spring, the adrenaline does flow.

(Soundbite of Rodeo Announcer)

McCHESNEY: Eighty-five-year-old Phil Stadler(ph) has been coming here since the beginning. He doesn't blame San Francisco. He says the old days were more exciting. Like in 1951, when he had a fist fight with movie actor Slim Pickens, who refused to pay for a bull.

Mr. PHIL STADLER(ph): I said, By God, Slim, if you don't, you're going to have to fight me. He said, We can get that on. So we fought in the arena right at first, and Harry Rowell run the show and he run in between us and said, You crazy bastards, you're going to ruin my show; go in the alley and fight.

So we went in the alley and fought. I hit him with a right cross on the jaw and knocked his tooth out.

McCHESNEY: During the rodeo, announcer Bob Talman asked how many people in the house were from San Francisco. The response was feeble. Then he asked how many people were glad they didn't live in the city and the response was deafening.

After the show, San Francisco fan Ann Nevorack(ph) says she couldn't convince most of her city friends to come here.

Ms. ANN NEVORACK: I don't know. I kind of feel like people in San Francisco try to distance themselves from that part of the American life.

McCHESNEY: It sounds like the people in here try to distance themselves from San Francisco.

Ms. NEVORACK: Yeah. Yeah. It goes both ways, I guess.

McCHESNEY: Even though there were plenty of empty seats, attendance was up significantly this year. So perhaps attitudes are softening in this Bay Area cultural divide.

John McChesney, NPR News. San Francisco.

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