Rodeo clown Keith Isley the ‘consummate pro’ in entertainment
Steamboat Springs — When he’s not stuffed in a barrel that’s getting pummeled by a raging bull, or toying around with kids and adults in a packed rodeo’s grandstands, Keith Isley is about as normal of a guy as you’ll find.
His flashes of humor are spent on the rodeo grounds in six- to 10-minute segments, providing entertainment between competitions for roughly five months per year.
Back in his trailer or at his ranch home in North Carolina, Keith is quiet, with his clown makeup stripped off, detailing how different the rodeo clown industry was decades ago compared to now. His wife, Melanie, flicks through magazines in their tight camper, echoing the same sentiments of her workaholic husband whose personality can be night and day inside and outside of the arena.
“We’ll have company over that’s not around us a lot at home, and they see him in this atmosphere, they are like, ‘Is he doing OK?’” Melanie said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, he’s just kind of quiet.’ He works a lot.”
Home in the true sense of the word takes on a different form for Keith, who has been entertaining rodeos for 43 years. Home has been on the road, in his trailer and at rodeo grounds across the country since he was 13, visiting every state besides Alaska and Hawaii, and even making stops in Canada and Puerto Rico.
It’s a business, Keith said, that takes a lot more discipline than hopping into a barrel and holding on for dear life, or razzing a western crowd with some current events humor.
What has made Keith such a success in rodeo clowning for three-quarters of his life comes down to the diversity of his acts and the animals he has the pleasure of entertaining alongside.
“You try to watch the news, read the paper, see what’s hot,” Keith said. “What is everyone talking about? You try to build something out of that.”
Keith also focuses on having a deep bag of tricks, so to speak. A lot of clowns might have one major show and run with it for an entire summer. He’d rather have a variety to choose from, with smaller sidebars along the way and a strong dose of ad-libbing.
But it’s the animals — Keith’s three horses — that make the shows tick every night, he insists. He trains them himself, Melanie said, and a clown’s relationship with his horses is as equally important as the cowboys who ride them.
“You can become very attached to them,” Melanie said, noting the couple doesn’t have children, but their animals are good substitutes. “He works so closely with his horses.”
Keith can be a tough catch for rodeo producers this time of year, with a full schedule and high demand for his more than four decades of service. He and Melanie swing by the Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo Series a few times per year, coming directly from one rodeo and leaving for another right after the Fourth of July.
What Keith brings to the arena during that short period isn’t overlooked by the likes of rodeo chairman Brent Romick, though.
“What’s special about Keith is he is the consummate professional,” Romick said. “He’s always funny and probably the best animal trainer I’ve had experience with. I can’t say enough about Keith Isley. If you didn’t do anything but come out and see Keith, it would be well worth your money.”
Keith will be entertaining through this weekend and during the Fourth of July rodeo festivities — a true asset to one of the premier events of the holiday weekend, Romick said.
Then it’s off to Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, New Mexico and Oklahoma on the rodeo circuit, driving the whole way.
A life on the summer road, the way cowboys and clowns alike prefer.
“These guys come in here, compete and they are gone before sunrise for somewhere else,” Keith said.
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