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Actors stress importance of Bill Pickett Rodeo

LOS ANGELES — Actor Reginald T. Dorsey had just come back from riding his horse, Blaze, and was kicking back in a chair on the porch of the Dark Horse Ranch in Sun Valley looking every bit the cowboy.

Donned in dusty boots and spurs, jeans with a huge belt buckle, a gray T-shirt and a cowboy hat cocked slightly over his eyes to avoid the sun, he began to wax lyrical about his love for horses and his 33-year relationship with the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, set to gallop into the city of Industry July 20-21.

Dorsey, a co-grand marshal, will be there to share in celebrating the rodeo’s 35th anniversary.

“It’s been a fantastic 33 years for me,” said Dorsey, a Texas native currently shooting the Urban Movie Channel series “5th Ward” in Houston. “This rodeo is a chance to educate people about the historical perspective of black cowboys and cowgirls. It’s also entertaining.

“What Lu Vason created is exactly what was needed. The community of black cowboys and cowgirls is stronger because of the Bill Pickett Rodeo.”

Dorsey, who starred in the western “Return To Lonesome Dove,” is just one of the celebrities who have participated in and established a relationship with the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo.

About 33 years ago, both Dorsey and Emmy Award-winning actor Glynn Turman, who have each competed in relay racing and calf-roping, brought the rodeo to the attention of other celebrities.

Actors Jim Pickens, Obba Babatunde, Pam Grier, Jeffrey Osborne, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Vanessa Williams, have all participated in the rodeo. So has Denzel Washington, who was a grand marshal, and Chris Tucker, who was the honorary grand marshal last year.

Because of his dedication to the Bill Pickett Rodeo, the relay race is now called the Glynn Turman Relay Race, according to Margo Wade-LaDrew, the rodeo’s national development and marketing director and Los Angeles rodeo coordinator.

The celebrities compete in the relay race against other teams made up of rodeo cowboys and cowgirls.

“It’s hard to put into words what the rodeo means,” said Jim Pickens of “Grey’s Anatomy.” “The best way to describe it is that it’s like when I was a kid playing cowboys and Indians, riding horses, wearing a big hat and the sound of spurs jingling on your feet. It’s this amazing rush of emotion, pride, excitement and the feeling of being a part of something that very few people get to experience.”

“The celebrities see the value, love horses and love being around the rodeo,” said Valeria Howard-Cunningham, who produces the rodeo as the widow of founder Lu Vason. “It’s a great experience. They have a great time, which is why they keep coming back.”

Launched in 1984 by Vason, a producer, music promoter and marketing consultant, who died in 2015, The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, billed as the “Greatest Show on Dirt,” is America’s only touring black rodeo.

The rodeo was named after Bill Pickett because he was considered the most famous black rodeo performer of all time. The rodeo’s events include bareback riding, relay racing, ladies steer undecorating, ladies barrel racing, bull riding, junior barrel racing, junior breakaway roping and bulldogging made famous by Pickett.

“The BPIR is important because it’s a vital link to our American past and how the black cowboy culture and involvement was an integral part of the country’s westward expansion,” said Pickens, a deputy grand marshal and 25-year veteran of the rodeo. “And even today, that way of life is still recognized and celebrated.”

Obba Babatunde of “The Bold and the Beautiful,” who is also a deputy grand marshal, echoes a similar thought.

“The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo puts both a past and present face on the great legacy, culture and positive contributions of blacks in America,” he said. “It also helps to undo the commonly projected false narrative and negative stereotypes.”

Although they are missing in history books and amazingly absent in most old Hollywood westerns, black cowboys, who at one time made up 25% of the actual cowboys in America, made a significant mark on the nation.

“I consider myself a rancher who like many started out as a cowboy,” said Glynn Turman. “A forgotten legacy is that black men owned our own land after emancipation. We had the skills to turn that land into farms and ranches — having slaved to build them for others. My grandfather was one such farmer in the south during the 1920s.”

 Turman is quite opinionated when it comes to the relationship Hollywood has with the black cowboy.

“The cowboy was the first larger-than-life action hero to appear in motion pictures,” he said. “This was not the image Hollywood was going to show of blacks to the world.” 

“Like pretty much everything else about our history in this country, the people who create our stories felt that it wasn’t important enough or that if it weren’t made available no one would know or care,” Pickens said.

If you believe Hollywood, the only men who conquered the wild, wild west were white men like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

“Hollywood has always been interested in what stories make money,” Pickens said. “And to them, they didn’t think or more likely didn’t know that there was an audience who was hungry to see people of color, who look like themselves, being heroic and selfless, with values and a sense of justice.” 

Historically, Hollywood’s old westerns haven’t done “justice” to the black cowboy who tended to the land, chewed tobacco, rode horses, carried six-shooters and yelled, “Hee Haw” just like their white counterparts.

As off-putting as it was to be ignored by Hollywood, in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, blacks took it upon themselves to create an alternative vision of the frontier by launching their own movie industry and making their own B westerns featuring an all-black cast produced for black theaters.

 Not surprisingly, on the Internet’s Movie Database’s (IMDB) list of The Greatest Western Movie Stars of All Time, not one out of the 64 male actors listed is black. 

The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo will take place at the Industry Hills Expo Center, 16200 Temple Ave., in the City of Industry. The show begins at 6:30 p.m. July 20 and 3:30 p.m. July 21. Tickets range from $22 to $55. 

For more information, visit billpickettrodeo.com.