"Whaddaya got?" - Marlon Brando as Johnny, The Wild Ones
In part two of our Biker History saga, we revealed how the AMA-dubbed “outlaws” were guys from clubs like the Boozefighters, Galloping Gooses, Jackrabbits and the 13 Rebels. Out of the nearly 3,000 riders that came to watch the races and be part of the Hollister Rally in 1947, the “outlaw” riders only amounted to a handful.
The misdemeanors that supposedly took place over the course of the Hollister weekend were pretty much of the “public intoxication” or “drunk and disorderly” variety, with one guy sited for trying to urinate into the radiator of his truck. There was racing in the streets, whooping, hollering and plenty of drinking, but not anything more outrageous than you'd see at a college frat party. About the worst thing that happened was that somebody stole a cop's hat. According to original Boozefighter Gil Armas, someone opened the front door to Johnny's Bar on the main street and said, "Come on in!" Gil rode his bike right up the curb, into the bar and propped it up against the bar to order a drink (an act which would later be immortalized in the Stanley Kramer film The Wild One).
So how did this weekend of innocent shenanigans transform into a riot and turn these fun-loving patriots on wheels into demon bikers from Hell? Ahh, you have the media to thank for that. San Francisco Chronicle photographer Barney Peterson was at the rally looking for a story but needed a catchy image to get his editor's attention. He got an idea and pushed a bunch of empty beer bottles over to a Harley that was parked at the curb. He then carefully art directed them to get the effect of a drunken orgy and enlisted the help of a rather large inebriated fellow named Eddie Davenport who just happened to be strolling down the sidewalk to pose on the bike. It wasn’t even his bike.
The picture and sensationalized story that blew the events at the rally all out of proportion appeared in the July 1947 issue of Life magazine and the die was cast. Bikers were the new evil that America was searching for after the demise of Hitler and before the fictitious threat of invasion from space or attack by radioactive mutant insects. Almost overnight, motorcyclists became crazed blood-thirsty bikers to the public at large. Lock your doors, guard your daughters, outlaw bikers on loud, nasty motorcycles were coming to raid your town!
To combat this new surly image, the AMA issued a now famous press release explaining that the “rough” element of motorcycling public amounted to only “one percent” of the total riding community. They insinuated that most motorcyclists were good, clean, God-fearing Americans with jobs and families. Naturally, “outlaw clubs” that were sprouting up across the country liked the idea of being the one percent that your momma warned you about and the term “one percenter” was born. Being a one percenter became a proud badge of honor to all those bikers that felt disenfranchised by society. The loners and outsiders now had a name and standard they could identify with.
As for Hollister, you’d think that the whole thing would have blown over in a few days as soon as the beer bottles were swept up. The public would go back to worrying about rebuilding Europe after the war. In fact, you’d think that the so-called “riot” would only merit a back page column in the local paper. After all, local citizens who were there on that July 4th weekend have stated time and time again that the whole thing was drastically blown out of proportion. There's a great quote from a local women named Marylou Williams in Bill Hayes' book that sums it all up:
“My husband and I owned the Hollister Pharmacy, which was right next door to Johnny's Bar (on the main street). We went upstairs in the Elk's Building to watch the goings-on in the street. I remember that the sidewalks were so crowded that we had to squeeze right along the wall of the building.”
“Up on the second floor of the Elk’s Building, they had some small balconies. They were too small to step out on but you could lean out and get a good view of the street. I brought my kids along. I had two daughters. They were about eight and four at the time. It never occurred to me to be worried about their safety. We saw them (the bikers) riding up and down the street, but that was about all. When the rodeo was in town, the cowboys were as bad.”
Writer Frank Rooney created a wildly overblown fictional take-off based loosely on the Hollister Riot called Cycle Raid which was printed in Harper's magazine in 1951. Always ready to cash in on a trend, Hollywood movie makers saw an incredible new villain in the black leather boogeymen portrayed in newspapers and magazines. Producer Stanley Kramer used Rooney's fictional account of motorized mayhem along with the events at Hollister as the basis for his 1954 film The Wild One starring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin. The film would give the tired old western genre one more twist with motorcycles taking the place of horses.