Wearing a close-fitting fleece and jeans, Loop Rawlins (pictured) leans into the trunk of his sedan at Tucson’s White Stallion Ranch. He looks like any arriving guest, car packed neatly with what look like enough padded suitcases for a very long vacation.
With a case in each hand, Rawlins unfolds into his 5-foot-11 frame. He looks as tidy as his trunk, with hair cropped closely on the sides, a meticulously trimmed goatee and a mustache that rises into the slightest curl.
That hint of a handlebar is the only suggestion of the persona Rawlins will assume in a couple of hours. “Loop Rawlins” is a stage name, a character he created when he was 16. Like the Lone Ranger, he declines to reveal his true identity. “Gotta have some mystery,” he says, flashing a Hollywood smile.
But how Rawlins turned trick roping, whip cracking and gun spinning into a career is no mystery. The only trick in trick roping is practice, he says — and Rawlins, who’s now in his mid-30s, has devoted thousands of hours to it. It’s paid off: a three-year run with Cirque du Soleil, performances on America’s Got Talent and, most recently, a gig as trick double for actor Pedro Pascal in the feature film Kingsman: The Golden Circle.
But tonight, as he has regularly for nearly half his life, he’ll perform for guests at White Stallion Ranch.
BORN AND RAISED IN TUCSON, Rawlins spun his first rope while performing with the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus. He was 8. But he’d been fascinated by images of the West for much longer. “I loved watching Western films,” he recalls. And despite the Clark Kent-style transformation into his stage persona, Rawlins never related to superheroes. He was drawn to Western characters with skills, but also to Indiana Jones and Zorro. He wanted “to be cool just like them,” like the kid who watches a magic show, then buys the magic kit.
As a child, Rawlins performed with cap guns in his parents’ front yard, trying to get passing motorists to smile or honk. People assumed it was a phase, but he never outgrew it. In 1999, the parent of a Boys Chorus member formed an independent trick-roping group, the Cactus Cowboy Corral, and brought in a New Mexico performer named Forrest Hobbs to teach the group roping tricks. “I was fascinated by all these things he was doing that I didn’t even know were possible,“ Rawlins recalls.
At age 14, while still in braces, Rawlins asked his mom to take him to a Tucson attraction called Trail Dust Town, where he showed the management what he could do. They hired him to perform before the stunt show a few nights a week. “That was the birth of my performing career,” Rawlins says.
He took acting and dance classes in high school, and he learned how to be a showman at Trail Dust Town. When he was 15, he took his show to an annual convention in Las Vegas; he didn’t win anything that year, but he learned a lot. He came back the next year and won five awards.
It was the boost he needed. He picked up gigs and started to travel. After a show at another local guest ranch, he approached the White Stallion.
Ranch co-owner Russell True recalls, “I saw Loop and, honestly, I thought he was the best I’d ever seen.”
RUNNING A SPEAKER CABLE ALONG cactus beds on the dining patio, Rawlins muses, “This is more dangerous than the show.” The plants didn’t used to be there, he explains: “They added it all in. That was a sad day.”
That’s not to say that working with ropes, whips and guns has been without incident. Rawlins has whipped himself onstage. And things can get interesting when he’s working with fire.
“I’ve gotten used to trimming my eyelashes,” Rawlins once told a reporter. “If it’s really hot … the combination of the heat in the air and the heat from my rope … will melt my hair a little bit.”
But Rawlins’ most serious injury happened when he swiped his eye with his hat, causing a corneal abrasion. “That’s just kind of ironic,” he says.
Under a full moon, a Western sound-track draws guests as they finish their dinners. As they settle into patio chairs, Rawlins emerges dressed all in black, pearl-handled guns nestled in a black leather holster.
Starting with gun spinning, Rawlins maintains a constant patter: “This first trick is called the backspin: Simply spin it straight back on the index finger. And nobody’s impressed. OK. It gets better.”
After a series of increasingly complicated spins and tosses, eventually throwing guns over his shoulders and catching them, Rawlins turns in a circle while spinning a gun horizontally in each hand. “This would look ridiculous in the middle of a gunfight,” he says. “Don’t try it when under fire.”
Coming to a stop, he says: “I noticed half of you were impressed. So, for the rest of you, we’re going to step it up a bit. You won’t see this in any movie or in any other show, folks; you’ll only see it here tonight. Maybe.”
Then he tosses a spinning gun into the air, letting it land, unaided, in his holster.
AFTER PERFORMING AROUND THE COUNTRY at fairs, rodeos and sporting events, Rawlins caught the attention of talent scouts for Cirque du Soleil. Following a lengthy process, he was cast as the lead in the “Western Medley” section of Viva Elvis!, which opened on the Las Vegas Strip in 2010. He moved back to Tucson after the show closed in 2012, with more than 1,400 performances under his belt.
Vegas proved to be good preparation when scouts from America’s Got Talent came calling. Rawlins’ audition wowed the judges, and the audience gave him a standing ovation.
“You’re an athlete in your prime,” lead judge Howard Stern said. “Before there was an NFL or an NBA, we might have seen you as a superstar. You really are superb and superior.”
Rawlins’ run on the show ended in the quarterfinals, but he did get a taste of celebrity. He didn’t like it.
Working in Vegas, he’d met celebrities. On the set of Kingsman, he worked with people who had fame and money. But it didn’t seem to make them happy. “So that’s what it was fun to experience about America’s Got Talent,” he says. “To remind me that it’s not about fame. That doesn’t matter.”
Rawlins’ skills have taken him to almost every state in the union, to Singapore and to London. He’s entertained before country singer Keith Urban and at halftime for the New York Knicks. Once, he flew to Utah to perform for a mystery client described as “seven people and two bodyguards.” The client turned out to be Star Wars creator George Lucas. And he met the actor behind one of his childhood inspirations, Harrison Ford, at a fundraiser: “Indiana Jones held one of my bullwhips!”
What’s next? Rawlins can’t say. He never knows where he’s going next or whom he might meet. And he likes it that way, but he admits that making a film is “sort of a dream.”
Like martial artist Jackie Chan, Rawlins can imagine movies as a sideline, but performing live is his life, he says. He’d never give it up.
“I’M GOING TO DO SOME FANCY ROPING,” Rawlins tells the audience. “But before I begin, has everyone been behaving? Wives, have your husbands been behaving?”
He starts simply, then moves on to complicated tricks with names like “The Texas Tornado.” “This next one took me a while to learn,” he says. “It’s called ‘The Grasshopper.’ ”
Descending into a one-handed handstand, he spins the loop up and over his body with the other hand. “Awesome!” a kid in the audience hollers breathlessly.
“I’m glad you liked it,” Rawlins says. “That took about 10 years of my life. … Now, some fancy whip cracking!”
The crowd groans when Rawlins announces the show is almost over. Spinning a vertical loop larger than he is tall, he jumps from side to side through it, like skipping rope. “This one’s called ‘The Texas Skip,’ ” he says. “It’s a classic. But let’s kick it up a notch.” For his finale, Rawlins spins out an enormous horizontal loop, playing out 30, then 40, then 50 feet of rope.
“You, too, can do this if you have no social life!” he says, raising his hat. “My name’s Loop Rawlins, guys. Thanks for watching my Wild West show.”
• To learn more about Loop Rawlins, visit looprawlins.com.