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Perry Beam: Not just rodeo clowns are overwhelmed by messages of hate

Updated: 2013-09-01T03:02:01Z


The Kansas City Star

Two weeks have passed since Perry Beam posted to his Facebook page about the two rodeo clowns lampooning President Barack Obama at the Missouri State Fair.

Two weeks of getting emails calling him “ Un-American!”... “Coward!” ... “A hater of Missouri because you embarrassed the state so badly!”

He says now the video would have stayed in his cell phone if he’d known the whole thing would be like stepping into a big ol’ political cow patty.

But the 48-year-old was angry at what he saw. The act crossed the line from traditional spoofing into racial overtones, he thought, especially when one clown tweaked the lips of the masked Obama and riled up the crowd, asking if they’d like to see Obama get gored by a bull.

Nobody else in the audience had seemed bothered, he said. Beam, however, was there with his mixed-race family. The Higginsville man decided he’d write a letter to complain. But that night, he posted about the comedy bit because he wanted affirmation from his Facebook friends.

The posting, shared thousands of times, zoomed to a top news story with commentators from Rush Limbaugh to Stephen Colbert talking about it. Beam has had non-stop phone calls asking him for interviews.

Retribution was swift, too. The two clowns — one’s gotten death threats — were banned for life from the Missouri State Fair Rodeo. The rodeo announcer, who had nothing to do with the skit, resigned as president of the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association and seemed in danger of losing his job as superintendent of the Boonville School District before being absolved Wednesday.

And Beam himself has been overwhelmed by hate letters, emails, anonymous phone calls and name calling from bloggers/columnists. Last week he thought someone let out the air in all four of his tires, although now he says he’s not sure, his tires were old anyway … but all four?

And his weekly jam sessions at an Oak Grove diner, the Broadway Grille, seem to have fewer musicians sitting in with him.

“All of this is a classic case of kill the messenger,” said the laid-back musician who loves to sing about achy, breaky hearts, a little stunned at the smell of vitriol stirred up in that rodeo arena.

Behind all the national attention focusing on racism, politics, cowboy thrill stunts and blurred lines about humor, the mess has hit closer to home.

Just off of Interstate 70 near the Jackson County line is Oak Grove, population almost 8,000. The town, with its long tradition of horse shows and rodeos, hasn’t stopped talking about that night at the rodeo and the reaction.

Because here, the community knows both men and both sides of the fuss well: the man who posted the video and one of the clowns involved, Tuffy Gessling.

And they love them both.

Beam answers his phone in Higginsville, ready to talk about it one more time. Folks from The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC have heard it.

He’s annoyed that most of the time his story has been truncated, without diving into his family’s tradition with the state fair, or how he lived in Taiwan for 13 years and knows what the sting of racism feels like.

Beam is a piano man; for nearly a decade, one of his gigs is a weekly jam session at the diner. His group, Beam & Eads, specializes in old-timey country tunes, a little blues and a little jazz.

He has deep roots in Oak Grove: his great-grandmother was once crowned Miss Lick Skillet, the burg’s original name back in the 1890s. Beam grew up on a farm outside Lee’s Summit and did a little rodeoing himself. His mother founded a wool growing association and was known at the state fair for her work.

He went to college, earned a master’s degree in English literature at the University of Central Missouri and married a fellow student, Lily, from Taiwan. They lived overseas for 13 years, teaching English during the day, running a club at night, along with playing some country and jazz.

He’s felt racism when he was the only white man in the room. Their children were teased because of their eyes. Since they moved back in 2005, he’s heard plenty of racist remarks about his Asian wife.

“Guys think I’m a good old boy playing country tunes, and they try to joke about her. I’ve set them straight. I’ll say, ‘Like, really dude, you’re gonna say that?’ Most of the time, the guy will apologize and everything is fine,” Beam said.

One of the Broadway Grille’s co-owners is Beth Fulks, the former president of Oak Grove’s chamber of commerce. She’s known Beam since childhood and is a fan of his music, she said.

“We love Perry,” she said. “But Perry Ray Beam got his panties in a bundle! And the knee-jerk reaction about it is hurting everybody.”

As word spread about the story and the name of one of the clowns, the Oak Grove Chamber of Commerce Facebook page was getting a lot of hits.

There were dozens of photos of its annual Jackson County Rodeo. And in almost all of them was one clown in over-sized overalls, a blue and pink flowered Hawaiian shirt and a red painted nose dotted with a smiley face: Gessling.

All the photos were taken down, said Jordin Mahnke, chamber executive director. That makes her sad. She wanted to hire Gessling for this year’s rodeo, too. Her father called her while she was on vacation to tell her what happened.

“I thought, ‘Ohhhhhhh noooooooo!’” she remembered. “All I could think of was, ‘Monday morning is sure gonna suck.’”

Gessling was Oak Grove’s VIP for a few days last September. Mahnke was his guide. Everywhere he went he made people laugh, lifted their spirits, she said. He showed kids at the grade school how to do fancy rope tricks. He acted goofy and danced, even making adults laugh. He trucked in his own Brahma calf, an animal that stood almost 6 feet tall. Gessling parked himself outside the STG Feed store posing for pictures.

“At the rodeo that night, he had all the kids in the audience line up, and he threw coins out into the ring,” Mahnke said. “It was Tuffy’s birthday and that’s how he wanted to celebrate. The kids had so much fun racing around collecting the money.

“There’s not a mean bone in his body.”

And don’t forget, his gig is keeping the bones of bucked-off cowboys from getting stomped on by snot-slinging bulls.

Gessling’s Facebook page will not accept any more friend requests. He did not respond to numerous messages. And several of his friends hung up on reporters, one saying he was disgusted by it all.

The rodeo clown that actually wore the Obama mask is still anonymous to the public, but Gessling appeared on television, to apologize to the public and President Obama, saying he was trying to be funny, not racist. He was sorry for causing anyone harm.

He decided to speak publicly, he told KCTV-5, because of threats to his family. Minutes after the Gessling interview aired, the Internet zoomed with headlines quoting him that he’d be honored to shake President Obama’s hand. A support Tuffy Gessling Facebook page has 83,000 hits.

There’s been too much overreaction, Beam said, and he even calls Gessling “a scapegoat.” This week, Beam wrote on his Facebook page that the two performers should be reinstated. What’s happened to them, including being banned for life from the state fair, he said, “Well, that’s just not right.”

Beam’s own collection of hate mail grows. Some of the names make him angry, some are laughers.

“Others are very ...,” he searches for the right word ... “writerly? I was called, ‘an eccentric, liberal, nudist musician.’” Beam especially likes this one, because he does play at a nudist camp in Kansas every year. “I’m not a button-down liberal,” he said.

But one Facebook insult has become a favorite. “She said I was ‘a butt-hurt prissie,’” he said, and hoots into the phone. “That sounds like a great name for a rock band, don’t you think?”

All kinds of strangers want to be his Facebook friend, but he’s leery ever since one columnist publicized some of his postings, taking them out of context, he said. He’s had plenty of time to rethink what happened. “I know that lampooning presidents is an old tradition, in rodeos. Think Nixon’s jowls, or Clinton’s nose.”

But when the one rodeo clown started bobbling the lips of the Obama mask, “That act seemed to suddenly intersect with another old tradition: that of demeaning black people by joking about their buttocks or lips.”

Beam knows how entertainers will push the envelope, especially to get a laugh. In hindsight, he said, he knows one easy fix that would have made this whole thing better.

“If one of the clowns would have just worn a Joe Biden mask, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

To reach Lee Hill Kavanaugh, call 816-234-4420 or send email to

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