Life Magazine Creates the Mythology
Life magazine sensationalized the event by splaying a picture of a drunken sot laying across a motorcycle surrounded by beer bottles. Problem was the drunk wasn’t a biker and that the picture was staged. I guess the real story wasn’t all that exciting.
The One Percent is Born
The American Motorcycle Association (AMA) rides to the rescue with its own media take. Ninety-nine percent of motorcyclists are decent people. The One Percent causes the trouble. Never has a deflecting “it’s not me, its them” speech created such a powerful symbol for the bike clubs who wear the The One Percenter flashes with pride.
The Real StoryWhy did bike clubs start in California? Demobilised WWII veterans were dropped off in San Francisco Harbour. The white veterans went to Frisco and the blacks to Oakland.
So, what really happened July 4th, 1947? The veterans formed hundreds of small motorcycle clubs with names like the Boozefighters, 13 Rebels, Jackrabbits and the Yellow Jackets. The membership colours were club sweaters. Many called them the straightpipers for obvious reasons. These guys drank a lot, partied, and rode their bikes. At first the AMA welcomed these clubs with open arms but not for long.
Thousands of bikes rode into Hollister, just south of Frisco from all over California and beyond. The 7-man police force decided to separate the town locals from the crowds of motorcyclists and set up roadblocks at either end of the main street.
The town’s 21 bars hit pay dirt. These veteran bikers learned to drink in the army and navy and consequently drank more. Everyone thought it funny when some rode their bikes into some of the bars. The police advised the bars to close two hours early. The 3-day party overwhelmed the police as many bemused townspeople watched the show of impromptu drunken drag racing, wheelies, and burnout contests.
The local hospital treated about 60-bikers for various self-inflicted injuries. About the same number were arrested for misdemeanor disorderly conduct, public drunkeness, and reckless riding. Most were released as they sobered up. However, no one died, there were no rapes, arsons, looting, or other serious crimes. No locals were harmed.
On the Sunday about 40 CHP officers arrived and threatened tear gassing. The bikers dispersed and left town.
Never Get in the Way of a Good Story
How bad was it? Five months later, Hollister sanctioned motorcycle races and the bars welcomed the same bikers back with open arms. However, this was never reported as it would have gotten in the way of a good story.
In the Wild One, the BRMC (Black Rebels Motorcycle Club) roars into town with their president, Johnny played by Marlon Brando. Johnny does not ride a Harley. Brando rides his personal bike in the movie, a Triumph Thunderbird 650cc. He doesn’t look like a real biker of the day. Brando is clean cut.
Chino played by Lee Marvin is not. His character oozes reality and bases on Willie Forkner better known as Wino Willie of the Boozefighters. Chino is grizzled with a cigar stuck in his mouth. He heads up the bad guys, The Beetles MC. He and his boys ride Harley-Davidson’s…and he’s looking for trouble. “I love you Johnny. I’ve been looking for you in every ditch from Fresno to here, hoping you was dead.”
In another scene, the pretty small town waitress asks wide-eyed “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against”? The iconic Johnny replies, “What’ve you got” as he coolly taps his fingers on the counter to the jukebox jazz.
Lee Marvin studied violin as a youth. He rode a Triumph 200cc Tiger Cub in real life competing in AMA desert races.
The story goes that George Christie of Ventura California buys the red-and-white horizontally striped shirt that Chino wears in the movie. Another report in www.edwardre.com/bike/FamousBikers.aspx disagrees, saying that the “San Francisco chapter president Frank Sadilek bought the striped shirt that Lee Marvin wore in the movie. Sadiilek wears the iconic shirt when meeting with police officials.” Regardless, to this day, members will wear a same style shirt.
Here I am in 2012 reading about the “boot suit” between Brando’s estate and Harley-Davidson. It matters not that Marlon Brando did not ride a Harley-Davidson in real life or the movie. However, it appears that Marlon’s leather calf-high boots with a buckle on each one have an appeal to the modern biker.
Ahhh, why not market a Harley T-shirt with red and white stripes from Lee Marvin’s character? Wrong image. The image of a rebellious, independent soul who is really a good guy underneath it all is what we are after. Hopefully, the image depiction organizes charity runs in his middle years.
In March 2012, Brando Enterprises LP and Harley-Davidson, Inc. along with Wolverine Worldwide Inc. (the current boot manufacturer) settle a lawsuit over the unlicensed use of the Brando name on a Harley-branded boot that resembles the ones that Johnny (Brando) Strabler wore in the Wild One in 1953.
Brando Enterprises did not authorize H-D to use the name. However, Brando Enterprises has licensed other products including the Triumph that Marlon Brando rode in the Wild One.