For more than 40 years, Leroy Shafer and his trademark cowboy hat have been de facto stand-ins for the entire Houston Rodeo experience — a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll and a whole lot of old school Texas fun.
After surprising with word that he will step down as rodeo vice president and COO this fall, Shafer tells CultureMap he will remain as focused as ever on the present and future of Houston's biggest public event, taking on the role of "manager emeritus" when he turns turns 70 in September.
"My title may change, but I'm not going away anytime soon," he laughs during a phone interview. "I'll keep working with our management team and volunteers to make sure the rodeo keeps evolving with our demographic."
Fresh from a tour of duty in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot, Shafer joined the rodeo staff in 1973 as public relations and marketing manager — a position that allowed him to nurture what was then a popular-but-stagnant livestock show into a multi-week celebration featuring some of the brightest names in county, rock, hip hop and tejano music. He was named assistant general manager in 1981 and COO in 2005.
"My title may change, but I'm not going away anytime soon."
For years, the rodeo star power meant cast members from popular television westerns like Bonanza and Gunsmoke. But when the show changed venues from the 9,000-seat Sam Houston Coliseum to the cavernous Astrodome in the mid-1960s, Shafer says that single celebrity appearances would get "swallowed up" by all the space.
Shafer's team continued efforts to draw major talent that could not only survive the massive performance venue, but also fill the dome's 50,000-odd seats. Under his early tenure, he watched a concert lineup of iconic country stars like Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash grow to include mainstream pop acts like Tony Orlando & Dawn, the Jackson 5 and Sonny & Cher.
To accommodate the growing crowds, a large-screen system was installed at the Astrodome in the early 1980s along with improved sound equipment.
"The changes through the years have been phenomenal, especially with technology," he explains. "When Elvis Presley played the Astrodome for us in 1974, people in the upper levels had to use binoculars to see him. And he was singing through a baseball PA system . . . Our present technology at Reliant Stadium rivals the Olympic opening ceremonies."
For the 2014 season, concert attendees will see twice the number of LED effect lights thanks to what Shafer calls the rodeo's efforts to "ride the newest technological innovations."
The 69-year-old executive says that that current ticket sales for the rodeo, which continues to break attendance records year after year, are as much as seven percent higher than sales at this time in 2013. Shafer attributes the success to decades of listening to rodeo fans.
"You have to continually change your product to meet your audience," he says. "I believe that's the most important marketing paradigm I've preached through the years . . . and I look forward to continuing that approach in my new role this fall."
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo kicks off its three-week run at Reliant Park on March 4 with concerts from Keith Urban, Reba McEntire and Blake Shelton as well as Maroon 5, Usher and Latin Grammy award-winners Pesado on tap.