Cowboy entertainer lives the part

Cowboy entertainer lives the part

  • Karen Gardner Assistant Entertainment Editor
  • Jan 8, 1999 Updated Mar 11, 2016
  •  0

Ron McGinley can twirl ropes, spin pistols and crack whips with the best of ’em. He pans for gold and when he’s relaxing, it’s often on his horse, Traveler.

Mr. McGinley is a Westerner at heart, although he was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and has lived near Frederick more than 30 years. He has performed his Western act before a Frederick Keys game, at a local nursing home, at the opening of a Western wear store and at a Wild West show in New York.

Now he’s doing parties and conventions. He can envelop three kids in his twirling rope, and got his picture in The (Baltimore) Sun doing just that trick.

“I like to entertain,” he said. “It just takes a little practice. I keep the ropes with me constantly, and practice maybe 10 hours a week in the winter, and 20 hours in the summer.”

On a bitter cold winter day, he demonstrated his technique for about 20 minutes before declaring his hands numb. Then he reminisced about winters in Arizona, where he and his wife like to travel at least once a year. “Temperatures are about 70 during the day, and it gets down to about freezing at night.”

Mr. McGinley, 55, drives a tour bus in Washington, D.C., for a living, and acts as a tour guide at some of the major tourist sites. He fell in love with the West as a child, watching Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Tom Mix on the big screen. “There’s something about the West,” he said. “You get a different sensation out there. The farther I can see the happier I am.”

He has ridden horses through Monument Valley, traced the steps of Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral, met the son of Geronimo and stayed in the town of Wickiup, Ariz., which bills itself as “the rattlesnake capital of the world.”

All of this got him featured on a cable TV show, “Cable Talk,” in Winchester, Va., last year. After the opening credits, Mr. McGinley is shown performing his act to music from the old John Wayne classic “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”

“I know that the West is not guns ablazing,” Mr. McGinley said. Still, he said, “Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp are my favorite heroes. I think they were men of courage.”

Besides watching old movies and visiting such Old West landmarks as Old Tucson and the Roy Rogers Museum, Mr. McGinley has read serious biographies of many Western characters, including Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Gen. George A. Custer, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph and Geronimo.

“The West was wonby brave men, but brave men killed other brave men,” he said, referring to the Indian massacres. It was also more a state of mind than a geographical location, he said.

“The West starts right here,” he said. “Lewis and Clark picked up weapons in Harpers Ferry, and gold was discovered in Virginia and Georgia.” He has panned for gold in such unlikely places as Maine, where he once found 24 flakes. Gold, he said, can be found in 35 states.

“The West is nothing but a group of frontiers, mining, cattle and fur,” he said. Cowboys, with their independent attitude and sense of adventure, added to the image.

He’s not a cowboy, however. “Cowboy work is hard work,” he said. “They work 15-hour days. I like being an entertainer. I like to travel. I like the outdoors, camping and fishing.”

He also likes to ride. He and his wife, Louise, recently bought horses, and he rides whenever he can. Traveler, his horse, is not named after the well-known mount of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, however. He’s named for Mr. McGinley’s love of travel.

It was five years ago, while riding horses near Front Royal, Va., that Mr. McGinley first saw rope tricks performed. He began practicing, and now does tricks including the butterfly and the handshake.

“I was told by another entertainer that the hardest thing about the butterfly is learning it, and the second hardest thing is learning how to make money while you’re doing it,” he said.

His ropes have weights and counterweights that help in balance. He has three ropes, all made of cotton, which must be special-ordered. One is 15 feet long, one is 30 feet long and one is 55 feet long. Each is looped at one end, and the edge of the loop helps to determine the kind of twirling that can be done.

One of his ropes has a “slow burner” loop, which gives better control. A string of wax thread is sewn through the rope with pliers.

His guns are the shiny, metal firearms that one imagines a cowboy wearing in his holster. They won’t be used in any gunfights, however. He keeps them unloaded. Occasionally, he’s asked to perform with blanks.

He’s also called upon to crack a whip, which explodes in a noise loud enough to break the sound barrier. Learning that wasn’t easy, he said.

“Wear goggles when you’re learning, and make sure nobody’s behind you,” he said.

Besides entertainment, Mr. McGinley has published a magazine of short stories, called Rest of the West, and a novel, “From Nowhere.” The plot follows a typical Western scenario. It centers on a gunman, a woman rancher and an orphaned boy, and their attempts to succeed at ranch life in Arizona.

“Writing those was a way to pay for a trip across the country,” he said. It worked. “I broke even,” he said.

He plans a sequel to the magazine and a new novel in the next year.

“If you know the start and finish of a story, everything else is fun,” he said.


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