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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Rodeo wrangler swaps spurs for circus sequins

Rodeo wrangler swaps spurs for circus sequins


ALBANY — Growing up, most young boys dream of being either a rodeo cowboy or running off to join the circus. Andre McClain couldn’t make up his mind, so he did both.

A child prodigy as a rodeo performer, McClain is now a valuable member of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that is at the Times Union Center tonight through Sunday.

Asked which dream job he preferred as a child, the man who trains animals for the circus rather than wresting them to the ground in the rodeo, said, “I love both. But I have to admit the circus is a lot easier on me physically.”

He spent most of his life as a cowboy, but for the past 10 years, he’s been living a dream he never knew he had.

As a child, the circus never entered his mind. “I never even saw a circus,” he said. “When I was a kid it was thought that only robbers and murders ran off to the circus. That wasn’t me. I was a cowboy. One of the good guys.

“The circus found me and now they can’t get rid of me. They say the circus makes dreams come true. It certainly made my dreams come true. I wake up every morning and I can’t wait to get into the ring to perform and look at the faces of all the kids who are having the time of their lives. I’m a lucky guy.”

Although a major attraction with the circus, McClain still calls himself “America’s favorite cowboy.” Indeed, if they were still making those old cowboy movies he’s probably be the modern Hopalong Cassidy. He was born and raised on a ranch in Kansas, Mo. His father founded and ran the Bill Pickett Rodeo, America’s first African-American touring professional rodeo show. McClain sings, does rope tricks and animals obey him when he whispers to them.

Andre was bucking ponies and wrestling steers at the tender age of 5. By the time he was 7, he was a competing with older men for prize money.

But Andre knew that in the modern world, even cowboys have to have an education and he took a break from the rodeo to earn a degree at the University of Missouri. Since there are no bronco busting courses at college, he got his degree in business management and was also a vocal major.

After college, McClain went back to the rodeo. When not wrestling steers, he could be found training ponies. Before long he was traveling in his father’s show with his own animal act.

Always searching for a way to improve, he visited circus headquarters to learn the proper technique for working with stilts, which he wanted to work into his act. Before long, the circus was interviewing McClain and they offered him a job working with the exotic animals and appearing in the All Access Circus Pre-show.

He accepted the offer to be the host of the pre-show. He worked with his horse and a couple of other animals, sang some country songs that he wrote himself, performed rope tricks and bantered with the audience. Gradually, he expanded his act to include a few more ponies, a couple of llamas and a watusi. “It’s not the dance,” he quips when talking about the pee-wee African steer.

He’s now in the main arena where he puts his six animals through their paces — standing on their hind legs and doing intricate maneuvers without the help of reins or a rider. Only his voice gets them to go what he wants.

It doesn’t sound very risky, but McClain cautions, “When you work with large animals, everything is dangerous. You can’t make an animal do a trick. An animal has to want to do what you ask of it. Sometimes, when it doesn’t want to do something, it can be uncertain. It’s all about trust. I trust them and they trust me. If you love them, they’ll love you back.”

Despite McClain’s upward mobility in the circus (he’s also the ringmaster’s understudy) he still insists on being part of the pre-show. “It’s a great party,” he said. “The best thing about being part of the circus is to see the expression on the faces of the kids. Let me tell you, the pre-show is where it’s at. The kids get up close to the animals and meet the performers. They are inches from the elephants and I let them pet my animals who love the affection. It’s a total wow experience — for them and for us.

“I’m telling you man, I got the best job on earth and it’s in the greatest show on earth.”

Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus at the Times Union Center in Albany through Sunday. For tickets, call 1 (800) 745-3000.

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