WHAT DOES A GIANT SILVER BULL’S HEAD WITH blazing red eyes and smoke-breathing nostrils have in common with an ordinary tract house whose famous Christmas decorations are so elaborate you can practically see them from space? Answer: The breath-taking talents of longtime Paso Robles resident, Clayton Cullen.
Which is why—in addition to a résumé that would make Lady Gaga’s production manager jealous—RFD TV appointed Cullen Chief Production Officer for its newest marquis event, Rodeo New York, to be held in June of 2020 at Madison Square Garden.
American rodeo-goers want a good show. And no one knows better how to give them that show than Clayton Cullen. One of four children born to a carpenter and stay-at-home mom, Cullen grew up in a loving home filled with music and Christian ideals. In fact, young Clayton and his mother and sister were a gospel-singing trio that performed in nearby churches. He would later bring his own family into that musical fold when he, his wife, and son formed their own gospel trio here on the Central Coast. But his formative years took place in Bell Gardens, a city in the endless urban sprawl that is East Los Angeles County.
So it’s hard to imagine this city boy growing up to be the bull-riding and rodeo production king for “rural America’s most important television network,” RFD TV. The acronym RFD stands for Rural Free Delivery, whose parent company is RMG— Rural Media Group, Inc., “the world’s leading provider of multimedia content dedicated to the rural and Western lifestyle.”
“I kind of backed into this profession,” he admits. Cullen’s first career choice was to become a doctor. He was accepted to a pre-med program at USC … and then, “I fell in love,” he explained. He and his wife Judy wanted to start a family (they eventually raised three children: Clayton J, Christina, and Charlissa), so he went back to work with his father, as a freelance carpenter for local construction companies. Judy’s roots were in San Luis Obispo, so the young couple relocated to Paso Robles in 1980 where he hoped to do the same. But the ‘80s recession meant less building and fewer jobs, so Cullen began to look elsewhere. He noticed that the Mid-State Fair was looking for a part-time, seasonal carpenter and he got the job. He didn’t know it then, but that job was a chance decision that would mark the beginning of a career he was meant for.
“I did a little bit of everything,” said Cullen. The “everything” included procurement duties plus managing stage hands and sound systems for the Fair’s grandstand entertainment. The job went to full-time in no time. “Suddenly, I was an office employee instead of an outside laborer.” For 14 years, Cullen was the Mid-State Fair’s entertainment director, overseeing contracts, sitting on scoring committees, handling insurance, catering, and security, and serving as liaison between the Fair and the artists’ representatives.
Along the way, he also designed and built a number of the fairground’s western-themed buildings; he installed new sound systems in the equestrian arena and auction barns; he even created a new system of bidding for production-related contracts that is still in use today for all California fairs.
Those years brought out the inventive problem-solver—as well the astonishing multi-tasker—that are his trademarks today.
“Clayton’s dedication to protecting the artistic integrity of his events, managing the labor and production budgets and working within the diverse and confusing building requirements to ensure that a world-class event is ready for the public night after night … makes every event a pleasure to work on,” said Timothy J. Parsaca, VP Event Production, Madison Square Garden.
When the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) came calling, Cullen had a chance to showcase his newfound ability to create show-stopping special effects. From 2004 to 2016, he was PBR’s Senior Vice President of Production, a job that took him to arenas all over the world and helped him develop a solid reputation as “the man who makes the magic behind the curtain.” For major events like The American, a two-day rodeo held at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Cullen oversees a staggering number of elements: Sound, lighting, graphics, video, pyrotechnics, script, contractors, sponsors, signage, scaling, security, rider safety, bull safety, television coordination, sponsor promotions, truck routing, maintenance, and myriad compliance issues.
Working an average of two events every week, Cullen was gone more than he was home, easily becoming a “million-miler” with United Airlines. “And that’s just one airline,” he said.
As the Tour Producer for the PBR’s Built Ford Tough Series, Cullen traveled to Mexico, Canada, Brazil, China, and Australia. He introduced new special effects, often designing them himself. Take those giant bulls’ heads for a start, now updated in gleaming chrome. Cullen also changed the antiquated LED ride clock display to a digital one shown on video monitors; created—sometimes on the spot— original set designs using truss, video, lighting, and signage; streamlined load-ins and load-outs by using modularized road cases; and nurtured strong business relationships with sponsors like Ford, Jack Daniels, Enterprise, Ariat, Wrangler, Caterpillar, and Dickies Workwear, among others.
Photos show Cullen with dozens of smiling stars from the music and film industries: Mark Harmon, Larry the Cable Guy, Charlie Daniels, Kiss’s Gene Simmons, Easton Corbin, and Gabriel Iglesias. There’s even one from his early years with Red Skelton.
Flawless reputation notwithstanding, a 30-year career like Cullen’s is not without its mishaps. For the PBR World Cup (a team competition where bull riders from 5 countries compete for their share of a $100,000 prize), held in Chihuahua, Mexico, Cullen had to haul in dirt by the truckload and dump it on the floor at Manuel Bernardo Aguirre Gymnasium. Piece of cake. Until the power went out mid-ride. For fifteen minutes, thousands of fans (plus untold more watching on television) held their breath while Cullen calmly switched to the backup generators he’d arranged for in advance, and instructed his team to go to intermission.
Proprietary unions, temperamental stars, rigging that doesn’t fit, missing musicians, lip-syncing scandals … the list is endless. But Clayton Cullen rises to every occasion and the show does go on, to the roaring delight of rodeo fans the world over.
“It’s been a long time (almost 30 years) since rodeo last ventured into the concrete canyons of Manhattan,” (says the website). For three days next June, Rodeo New York will bring together the best of the best at the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. Tickets are now on sale at www.rodeonewyork. com and RMG hopes it will be the first year of an annual event. Stay tuned to RMG’s The Cowboy Channel for all the latest news.
For Cullen, the job of producing Rodeo New York is the top prize in his long career. Now, instead of the grueling two-events-per-week schedule, he can do much of the work he loves from his Paso Robles home, traveling just twice a year for The American and Rodeo New York.
Billed as a “Western sports spectacular that will be well worth the journey east of the Mississippi,” rodeo athletes and fans alike are thrilled for the chance to see rodeo history in the making. But none as much as Clayton Cullen.