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Clowning around with Frankie Smith

Frankie Smith, or Punkintown, clowns around in the stands with a fellow South Carolina native during the July 4 Cody Stampede Rodeo. Smith has been a rodeo clown for 15 years. ‘I get to entertain the crowd,’ Smith said. Frankie Smith, or Punkintown, clowns around in the stands with a fellow South Carolina native during the July 4 Cody Stampede Rodeo. Smith has been a rodeo clown for 15 years. ‘I get to entertain the crowd,’ Smith said. Tribune photo by CJ Baker

Frankie Smith, also known as “Punkintown,” was born to clown around in arenas such as the Cody Stampede Rodeo.

He’s a circuit-riding rodeo court jester, and he’s funny.

“What are you doing?” asked the announcer, Randy Schmutz, at the Cody Stampede Rodeo Monday evening.

“Man,” Punkintown said in a slightly embellished Western drawl, “I’m learnin’ up on my golf game.”

Smith is wearing exceedingly baggy pink pants, held upright by gaudy suspenders, and a huge golf hat with red polka dots. His makeup is subtle for a clown. No quintessential red nose. His golf club resembles a child’s stubby hockey stick. 

He wears a wireless microphone. He joshes the announcer, providing comic relief. More importantly, Smith sidetracks stomping bulls so dismounted riders can avoid pounding hooves and pointy horns.

His No. 1 job is to protect the cowboys, Smith said.

In the bull-riding arena, bullfighters aim to protect the rider, and the clown aims to protect the bullfighters and the rider. “I’m the island of safety for all of them,” Smith said.

“I’ve been doing this for 15 years and making a living at it,” Smith said while he was repairing his barrel Monday afternoon before the Cody rodeo that night.

Smith hops into his barrel when a bull threatens him with a thrashing.

The barrel, shaped like a big beer keg, is 130 pounds of steel. The outside has 2 inches of padding to protect the bull’s head and the inside has 1 inch of padding to protect the occupant — Punkintown.

It is a topsy-turvy world within his reinforced cocoon. Smith said he’s been thrown end-over-end six or seven times by one bull. 

He patches the exterior after each rodeo and replaces the entire skin once per year. It is a custom-made barrel priced at $1,600.

At 49, Smith looks fit. He rides a bicycle and stretches a lot. But there is no rigorous weight-lifting regime, and no six-pack abdomens of steel for Punkintown, he said.

“I don’t think I’ve ever bought a six-pack and kept it,” Smith said.

Being a rodeo clown comes with its share of danger. Smith said he has undergone four knee surgeries, and he has suffered three concussions in his 15 years as a rodeo clown.

Even so, “Bulls don’t scare me,” Smith said. “People texting and driving

scare me.”

His act includes wisecracking with Schmutz or an audience such as a troop of Boy Scouts on Monday.

When a cowboy  still is aboard his bronco after completing his ride, Smith jokingly scolds, “OK, buddy, get off. You only paid for eight seconds.”

During a rodeo, “I do all the fun parts,” Smith said. “I get to entertain the crowd.”

His 15-year-old pony, Turbo, helps out with a “pony act.” “The smartest horse on earth,” Smith boasts.

The point is making the audience forget their problems for a few hours. “I get to be the one to bring laughter to the rodeo arena,” Smith said.

On Monday, Smith’s costume was mostly pink. Rodeo hands helping in the arena also sported pink shirts for Wrangler’s “Tough Enough to Wear Pink” fundraiser.

All proceeds from the rodeo Monday night were earmarked for the Cody Cancer Group.

“The Cody Stampede Committee is off the chart,” Smith said.

The Cody Stampede Rodeo is one of nine stops on the Million Dollar Gold Tour series, Smith said.

“You got the best of the best coming here,” Smith said.

There is no guaranteed paycheck for cowboys, bullfighters and clowns facing off against four-legged foes in the dusty arena. Perhaps it is a love of the sport that brings them back time and time again.

“It’s the love of the West,” Smith said.

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