"It Takes Glamour, Grit and Guts to be Miss Rodeo America!"
By Susan Cox Stauffer, MRA 1959
Rodeo is the real American sport in every way. It is a mixture of big business; rugged contestants; big city showmanship; cowboys from local working ranches and professional contestants. It offers excitement, violence, endurance, sportsmanship, desperation; disappointment and successes. It provides a close diverse fraternity of ropers, riders, clowns, trick riders, rodeo queens, and families. Rodeo is staged at fiestas, small fairs, in big cities arenas as well as in small rural community ranches. Every aspect of this sport is all American and grew from the vaquero competitions on the ranchos to become the big time professional rodeos of the National Rodeo Association.
The Miss Rodeo America organization and pageant competition exists for the purposes of selecting a young lady to serve as an official spokesperson for the sport of professional rodeo. The Miss Rodeo America pageant was started in 1956 to help promote rodeo as a national sport. I was chosen in 1957 to be Miss Rodeo Idaho 1958, and then went to Las Vegas in December of 1958, to compete in the fourth Miss Rodeo America pageant. I was eighteen and quite awe struck by the entire experience. When the famous Hollywood western movie star, Gary Cooper, announced my name as the new Miss Rodeo America 1959 on stage at the fabulous Flamingo Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, I couldn’t believe this was really happening to me.
Of course there was the glamorous side of being the national rodeo queen: The beautiful clothes, the public appearances with Hollywood western stars, visiting new places, being cheered in parades and enjoying a certain dignitary status. I traveled nationwide as a recognized celebrity guest helping local rodeos market their events, making television appearances, making speeches, visiting schools and hospitals, and giving riding exhibitions. I also served in the role of model and spokesperson for a variety of promotional events and commercial advertisements for western clothiers, publications, sponsors and other service providers to the western industry. Two of my beautiful suits were made by the famous western designers Turk of California and Nudie of Los Angeles who outfitted Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Rex Allen. Both of these suits and the rest of my Miss Rodeo America wardrobe are in the permanent collection of the Autry Museum and were shown in the exhibit, “How the West was Worn.”
But there was also a dangerous side to being Miss Rodeo America that anyone in their right mind would think twice about before taking the position. For example, I was expected to make a grand entrance into the rodeo arena at full speed sometimes on a horse I had never ridden before. I had done this many times in my home rodeo at Lewiston, Idaho on my horse, Socks –no problem except he was a big showoff and decided to rear up on his hind legs in the center of the arena like the famous Trigger. It was not dangerous and the crowd loved it but my father was furious with his “well trained” horse who he considered had misbehaved badly. However, another extremely dangerous incident for me occurred at a rodeo in Utah. My plane was late so upon arrival, I was promptly hurried off to the rodeo grounds. There was no time to practice on the horse I was to use for my grand entrance. I was handed the reins, told to mount and be ready to make my entrance from the center bucking chute. When the door to the bucking chute was opened, my horse entered the arena at full speed and started bucking as hard as he could. I managed to stay in the saddle and not be thrown, but it was a very frightening experience. I found out later that the horse I had been riding, was a retired bronco that had been “retrained” by the stock contractor as a pickup horse. What a surprise!
Another daring feat for me was carrying a large American flag while racing around the rodeo area with Harley May, President of the Rodeo Cowboy Association. Mounted on matching black horses, we each circled the arena in opposite directions and end up together in the center spotlight while the national anthem played. Then side by side we were to exit the arena at a full gallop with flags flying. It doesn’t sound difficult but timing was everything. Also, the flags were extremely heavy and hard to control when flapping in the wind. I almost dropped my flag on several occasions as the racing horse nearly pulled the reins out of my hand. I had to struggle to keep it all together and not fall off.
I have wonderful memories of my experiences from that year. I met many wonderful people wherever I went and I came to appreciate the time and effort spent is putting on a rodeo both large and small. The cowboys were wonderful and treated me as their queen with great respect. They were helpful, encouraging and good dancers. (We would go dancing after the rodeo event was over to unwind and have fun.) Robert Horton who played Flint McCullough, the scout, on the television show, “Wagon Train,” became a special friend since we appeared at many of the same rodeos. I also got to spend time with James Garner and Jack Kelly, the stars of the popular television series, “Maverick.” They were my pageant judges, along with Jane Russell and Bob Barker. I was invited to come to Los Angeles after the pageant to visit them at the studios. I also was fitted for my wardrobes with Turk of California and Nudie of Los Angeles while I was here and I modeled for a Justin Boot ad in the magazine, “Western Horseman” with John Justin who custom designed all my boots to match my outfits.
One of the more humorous incidents was the appearance of Clint Eastwood at the 1960 Miss Rodeo America Pageant. He was scheduled to crown the new queen. He was just beginning his career in western movies after playing Rowdy Yates in the television show, ”Rawhide.” He arrived at the pageant in polyester slacks, a golf shirt, loafer shoes and a pompadour hair style. The contestants were surprised that he wasn’t dressed western and had a pessimistic opinion, “If he wants to be a big Western movie star, he needs to toughen up and look the part or he will never make it!” Boy! Were we ever wrong! What did real cowgirls know about making movie stars anyway!
Today, the Miss Rodeos’ at all levels: local, state and national, still wear the flashy outfits of sequins, satin's, beads, leather dresses and tailored western suits but always appear publicly in a cowboy hat, boots, large silver belt buckle and dressed in complete western attire with a Miss Rodeo America banner. After all, we are representing rodeo—the real all American sport!