Rodeo clown Butch Lehmkuhler was a crowd favorite during the Cody Stampede Rodeo for nearly three decades.
Known as “The Man with the Trampoline,” Lehmkuhler was in town last week as part of the 100th anniversary festivities, but was likely unrecognizable to many who saw him while he was a contract performer during the Stampede from 1978-2007.
“Cody is an exclusive and unique place,” he said. “There was a new crowd every night and for some it was their first time seeing a rodeo, so you’d always give it all you could. It’s still a place I love to be.”
Lehmkuhler made his first appearance at the Stampede in 1978 along with Rich Reinert. The two worked as clown-bullfighters alongside bullfighter Bobby Donaldson.
“We were rookies,” he said. “It was one of the first big rodeos we’d ever done and the second pro rodeo. We figured it must have gone well because they hired us back.”
Anyone who attended the Stampede during Lehmkuhler’s tenure likely remembers his trampoline act. A “world champion” trampoline performer comes out to show off his skills and Lehmkuhler decides he wants to try it. He struggles to even get on the trampoline, even getting his head stuck in the springs. He bungles some simple moves until the end, when he wows the crowd with his acrobatic moves.
“It was always fun to do and always came easy and natural for me,” he said.
He said the energy of the crowds, especially in Cody, made his performances even better.
“You can’t function without that feedback,” he said. “It was like gravy. You lather it on and it keeps you going. I would guess it’s like taking drugs because you feel so alive after that.”
Creating the act
Lehmkuhler attended Chadron State College and earning degrees in both education and psychology in 1976. It was there he met Reinert as both were divers for the swim team.
To help improve their skills they also became gymnasts under the guidance of the late Harry Simonton. It was out of that connection that the famous trampoline act originated.
“In college as gymnasts we’d tour and put on gymnastic shows,” Lehmkuhler said. “Part of the show was a trampoline act. Our coach was the comedy man and the gymnasts did the straight act. It was all pantomime.”
The second year they did the show Lehmkuhler took over the comedy part, while Reinert played the straight guy.
“It’s where we learned our skills,” he said.
Lehmkuhler joined the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1977, and they took the trampoline act into the area that year during a rodeo in Colorado. Cody was the second place they performed it and he eventually retired the act at Stampede Park as well.
In the early days of his career Lehmkuhler also worked as a high school teacher and coach, and went to rodeos in the summers. He went full time from 1988-97 and performed at some of the biggest rodeos around including Calgary and Cheyenne.
He won the prestigious “Coors Man in the Can” award twice in 1989 and 1992 and was five times named PRCA Clown of the Year from 1989-91, 1993 and 1997.
“It was totally natural for me, being an entertainer,” he said. “And I was really good at entertaining.”
He fought bulls for about 10 years before switching his focus solely to clowning.
“I knew where my greater talents were and that I would flourish more in the future as an entertainer,” he said. “I was most effective when I was spontaneous,” he said. “I’d make something up based on something that happened that day. If it was fresh for me, it was fresh for other people.”
He said working with a variety of announcers also kept his act from becoming stale.
“If you’re reciting lines it becomes mundane and not funny,” he said. “New announcers would give a new response to the lines.”
He compared it to making a chocolate cake, using new ingredients to make it even better.
When he quit bullfighting he and Reinert went separate ways, but the friends would reunite to do their trampoline act during the Cody Stampede for several more years.
“That was the only time we did the original was in Cody,” Lehmkuhler said. “The other times I did it solo.”
Stepping back and
A couple of different things caused him to go part-time again in 1998, one being the drives across the country started taking a bigger toll.
“All the driving was easier when I was younger,” he said. “One time I fell asleep and tipped over a trailer.”
The other factor was a friend of his passed away and he was the only one who was able to take over teaching his classes at that time.
“It was a door opening and another closing,” he said. “I started to rodeo part-time in the summers after that.”
Still, each summer for nearly 10 more years Cody remained the hub of his summer runs.
“It has been a place we watched families grow up and their kids brought their kids for autographs,” he said.
Lehmkuhler said he never had a contract for the Cody Stampede, with each side just giving their word he would have a spot the next year.
“They’d say, ‘See you next year’ and their word was good,” he said. “That’s all they needed. Other rodeos were not like that.”
Another thing that made Cody special for him was how welcoming the people were.
“That’s not as common as you might believe,” he said. “There were big rodeos I went to multiple times and I never met the wives or families. That’s not the case here. This place is special to me.”
It wasn’t difficult for Lehmkuhler to step away from performing during the Stampede.
“It was the right time,” he said. “It was time to move on. It was time for some new energy.”
A year later it was a little more emotional.
“That summer Fourth of July rolled around and my daughter looked at me and asked what we were going to do,” he said. “That had always been her Fourth of July and we didn’t even realize it.”
At the urging of his daughter, the family returned to visit during the Stampede about 10 years ago, but they hadn’t been back again for the holiday until this year.
“It’s still our home away from home and it’s always going to be,” Lehmkuhler said. “We have really good friends here and you can’t substitute that for anything.”