Back When They Bucked with Joe McBride
Written by: Michele Toberer< Back to Articles
Although Joe McBride spends many hours behind the camera lens now, he started out in front of them as a rodeo clown and bullfighter during a rodeo career that spanned nearly 30 years. Joe has been capturing the essence of rodeo through photography at International Professional Rodeos, not missing a single IFR in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma since he snapped his first shot there in 1992. The Brooklyn born 79-year-old also takes photos at multiple rodeo events as he travels across the northeast on his off-time from his full-time position with the New York State Department of Corrections. Joe just passed his 35-year-mark of service to the job and has no plans to retire anytime soon. He watches inmates from his tower perch 50 feet above them at the Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Wallkill, New York. “When people ask when I’ll retire I tell them on the first…the first chance I get! But really, I have no intentions to retire, I’m like a worker bee, what would I do if I wasn’t working, sit on the couch and watch tv?”
It was a very different line of work that filled Joe’s life before beginning his career with the corrections department. Joe had a fondness for horses, and an intrigue for the cowboy lifestyle. His mom, Eva Catherine McBride, an executive for IBM at their corporate headquarters in New York, fed her son’s passion by taking him on annual trips to the rodeo at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and even gifted him with a white gelding named Silver when he was 15-years-old. When Joe was 16, working at Camp Molloy in Mattituck, Long Island as a horse wrangler and trail guide, he went to the Islip Speedway Rodeo in Islip, Long Island and approached the owner, Gerry Partlow, for a job. Gerry let the teen exhibition ride on a bareback horse that night in 1956, and although he landed upside down into the fence after being bucked off in just a matter of seconds, Joe was drawn in to a life he wanted more of. “As I stepped out of the arena, my buddy asked me ‘How was it?’ and I said I loved it! I want to do it again!” Joe worked at a couple other rodeos for the Black Diamond Wild West Show that season, and at one of them, after sleeping on a bale of hay with a pair of clown baggies as his bedding, he remembers pulling them on just to see what they looked like, not knowing what a big part of his future he had just stepped into.
Gerry agreed to let the aspiring cowboy have a job the next year if he came to Milan, Illinois the following spring. So, against his mother’s better wishes, in March of 1957, Joe dropped out of his studies at the School of Aviation Trades in Manhattan, and he and his friend Paul Dobin drove out of town in his Neptune green 1952 Ford pickup truck, headed for his future. “I thought spring started in March, and from watching television, I thought we were headed for a life that all cowboys lived, herding cattle on a ranch, sleeping in bunkhouses and then putting on rodeo shows as a sideline.” But, when Joe and Paul arrived in Milan to start their cowboy careers, they were taken aback when they found out the lifestyle of the wild west rodeo shows was not quite what they envisioned. “I was looking for the Black Diamond Ranch, but when we found Gerry Partlow, it ended up that he didn’t have a ranch; he rented a pasture to keep the horses turned out, and sold all the cattle but one bull after the season so he didn’t have to keep them through the winter, and he lived at home with his parents.” Even after attempting to sleep a few nights in Joe’s truck in the cold and snow, the two cowboy hopefuls were determined to make it work and finally decided to get a motel room and call their moms, who began sending them money to get them by. The friends worked several odd jobs and found a more permanent housing solution until May came along and the rodeo shows started up. Joe hauled a trailer that served as a stripping chute at the rodeos and was filled with the stakes and wire used to set up the rodeo arenas, and they left for the first rodeo of the season in Dexter, Missouri. “My job was to help set up and tear down the arena at each rodeo, and ride one bareback horse and one bull every performance.” There was another cowboy that hauled the bucking chutes trailer, and part of setting up the arena entailed taking the tires and wheels off the trailer, setting it on its axles at ground-level for the rodeo, covering the hubs with burlap sacks in case a cowboy was to land on them. They would then put the tires and wheels back on as they tore down the arena, readying it for travel to the next town. Joe spent several years working these traveling rodeo show seasons, riding and entertaining the crowds as a rodeo clown. In 1958, he added bullfighter to his list of job titles and often rode bulls while wearing his rodeo clown costume.
Although rodeo is known to be big in the west, Joe made quite a career working as a rodeo clown and bullfighter in the northeast. Besides working for the Black Diamond, Joe worked for many other rodeo companies, such as Lou LaFalce and The Lazy L Rodeo Company based in Highlands, New York, Dick Quintoni who put on rodeos across Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the Crazy Horse Rodeo Company, Dodge City in Patchogue, Long Island, and for long-time IPRA rodeo contractor, Andy Compantero who owns Double R Rodeo Company. By 1965, Joe had given up bull riding, and was mainly perfecting his rodeo clown act. “In 1965 I bought a 1962 Ford F100 for $15 and turned it into my clown car. I moved the rear axle forward 3-or-4-feet so that it put the truck off balance. In my act, as soon as the other clowns got in the back of the truck it would buck and seesaw as I drove around the arena. The last part of the act a ‘bomb’ would go off, and then I’d pull a pin inside the truck that would flip the bed of the truck up and I’d drive out as the other clowns were dumped out onto the ground. As far as I know, it was one of the first clown trucks like it.”
Joe Jr. was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1939 to his parents, Eva and Joseph F. McBride, who divorced when he was just 3-years old. Joe Sr. was a was a welder in the Brooklyn Navy yard and joined the Navy, becoming a Seabee and working as an underwater welder to repair damaged ships during World War II. He was also a golden gloves middleweight boxer.
In February 1960, Joe met Carolyn Mirsky as he worked at Carroll’s Riding Academy in Brooklyn, by December of 1960 they married, and they ended up settling in the Middletown, New York area. In addition to rodeos, Joe worked many jobs ranging from installing chain link fencing to delivering produce and working as a driver for Sears for nearly 15 years. The couple had three children, Lisa, Joey, and Dennis, before divorcing in 1967.
Photography was once just one of the many acts in Joe’s clown act arsenal, as he made the crowds laugh with delight as he wiggled and joked under a photographer’s cape with an exploding camera; but truly his passion for photography began with his mother. “My mom loved photography and bought me my first camera when I was about 13. Once I was clowning and fighting bulls, she gave me one of her old cameras and encouraged me to take photos at the rodeos; but I was so busy working I didn’t have time to take many. I finally upgraded to a Sears Camera, and then bought a Nikon and over the years I began taking photos at more and more rodeos. I really do it mostly for enjoyment, and now it’s my way of getting in to the rodeos without paying!”
Although Joe didn’t finish his aviation studies in high school, planes were destined to become a big part of his life, and he still owns a 1962 Cessna 172 plane that he flew for many years, logging over 1000 hours of flight time. He is instrument rated and has a commercial rating on his pilot’s license. Joe also enjoyed traveling the roads on his 1993 Harley Davidson up until just 3-years-ago. His daughter Lisa May McBride currently lives in California, but recently passed the test to begin her own career with the same department of corrections as her father, so she will soon be relocating to New York. She has a son, Shawn that is married and living in California. Joe’s son Dennis also resides in California with his wife, Angela, where he manages a water treatment plant, and they have two children; daughter Lauren lives near Redding with her husband, and their son Chandler recently finished four years of service with the Air Force. Joe’s oldest son, Joey, lives on a 182-acre farm in New York, where he farms hay and he also drives double-trailer trucks for UPS, staying in town with Joe 5 nights each week. Joey and his wife Lisa Marie have 2 sons, Hunter and Logan that are 10 and 9-years old respectively, and 2 married daughters, Rachel who lives in Tennessee with her husband, and Heather who lives in upstate New York with her husband and just recently started in the training academy for the New York Department of Corrections.
Joe McBride followed his passions in life and found happiness comes when you work for it, especially when what you do for work is a passion. He has literally spent a good portion of his life ‘clowning around’ and he wouldn’t have done it any other way.