The Gypsy Tour
Throughout the 1930’s, Hollister hosted an annual Fourth of July Gypsy Tour event.
Gypsy Tours were American Motorcyclist Association- sanctioned events that took place all over America. They were the best place for motorcyclists to converge. The annual event consisted of races and social gatherings and the riders were always welcome. As a very small town (roughly 4,500) the rally became a major event in its yearly life as well as a part of the town's economy.
In the 1940’s the annual Gypsy Tour event was cancelled because of the war effort.
End of the War
After the war countless veterans came back to America and had a difficult time adjusting to the comparatively mundane civilian life.
Civilian life felt too monotonous for men who had become accustomed to a more adventurous life that encompassed an element of excitement and danger. Some also needed a way to emotionally process the wartime memories and experiences that haunted them. Others sought the close bonds and camaraderie found within the ranks and structure of a riding club; a familiar and welcome experience.
Thus, motorcycling emerged stronger than ever as a substitute for wartime experiences and provided what was missing from domesticated life back at home: adventure, excitement, danger, camaraderie and a real positive reason to feel alive.
To enjoy the freedom they fought for.
Men who had been a part of the motorcycling world before the war were now joined by thousands of new members who each rode for their own reasons.
Additionally the popularity of motorcycling grew dramatically after World War II as surplus Harley-Davidson's were hitting the market and returning vets were coming home eager to cast off the dust of war.
The Hollister Riot
In 1947 the Gypsy Tour event was reorganized and on July 3, 1947 the festivities began in Hollister.
What organizers failed to realize was the popularity of motorcycles had grown dramatically. This rise in popularity caused one of the main problems of this event: Unprecidented attendance. It was estimated some 4,000 motorcyclists flooded Hollister, almost doubling the population of the small agriculture community.
They came from all over California and the US, even from as far away as Connecticut and Florida. The town was completely unprepared for the number of people that arrived as attendance far exceeded expectations based on previous years.
This was all too much for the seven-man police force of Hollister to handle. The police tried to stop the motorcyclists' activities by threatening to use tear gas and by arresting as many drunken men as they could. Nearly 100 persons were jailed during the course of the event. Eyewitnesses were quoted as saying, "It's just one hell of a mess", but that the motorcyclists "weren't doing anything bad, just riding
up and down whooping and hollering; not really doing any harm at all."
The ruckus continued through July 5 and slowly died out at the end of the weekend as the rallies ended and the motorcyclists left town. At the end of the Fourth of July weekend and the informal riot, Hollister was littered with thousands of beer bottles and other debris and there was some minor storefront damage. Most were charged with misdemeanors such as public intoxication, reckless driving, and disturbing the peace. There were roughly 60 reported injuries, of which 3 were serious.
Other than having to witness the chaos of the weekend, no Hollister residents suffered any harm at all. A City Council member at the time stated, "Luckily, there appears to be no serious damage. These trick riders did more harm to themselves than the town.
The small riot came to national prominence through media coverage. However, the articles that were written about the riot were greatly exaggerated and sensationalized the actual events.
Two articles were published in the San Francisco Chronicle. With titles Havoc in Hollister and Hollister's Bad Time, they both described the event as "pandemonium" and "terrorism". While the articles did not actually lie about the events that occurred, the perspectives of the articles were both negative toward the motorcyclists involved.
Life Magazine takes misrepresentation a step further: Life’s national distribution made sure that all of America got a good, long look at the drunk on the Harley. The photo, one of two that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Monday, July 7, was taken in Hollister the previous Friday night by Chronicle photographer Barney Peterson.
With the click of a shutter, motorcycling’s worst nightmare became a reality. To many motorcyclists, that one stark, black-and-white image dealt a fatal blow to their cherished self-image. The photo, taken by Peterson, shows a drunken man, sitting atop a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, holding a beer bottle in each hand and surrounded by many other empty, broken bottles.
The man was later identified as Eddie Davenport, but... Gus De Serpa had a different light to shed on this story. De Serpa was working as a movie projectionist in the Granada Theatre on the
night of Friday, July 4, 1947. After his shift ended at 11 p.m. he walked over to San Benito Avenue to take in the spectacle the whole town was talking about.
“We went uptown, my former wife and I,” recalled De Serpa, “to see all the excitement, and we ran into these people. They were on the sidewalk and there was a photographer. They started to scrape up the bottles with their feet, you know, from one side to another, and then they took the motorcycle and picked it up and set it right in the glass.” Of the man on the motorcycle, De Serpa said, “That’s not his motorcycle, I can tell you that. He was just in the vicinity, and he was pretty well loaded. There was a bar right there, Johnny’s Bar. I think he came wandering out of that bar, and they just got him to sit down there. I told my wife, ‘That’s not right; they shouldn’t be doing that. Let’s stand behind them so they won’t take the picture.’ I figured if I was behind them they wouldn’t take it. But he took a picture anyhow, this fellow did, he didn’t care. And then after that, everybody went on about their business.”
Hollywood Doubles Down
Hollywood takes the story and runs with it in the 1953 Stanley Kramer produced film The Wild One.
Starring Marlon Brando as Johnny Strabler, his character’s persona became a cultural icon of the 1950's. The Wild One is considered to be the original outlaw biker film and the first to examine American motorcycle gang violence. The film’s screenplay was based on Frank Rooney’s short story The Cyclists’ Raid which was published in Harper’s Magazine in 1951. Rooney’s story was inspired by sensationalist media coverage of the Gypsy Tour event that got out of hand in Hollister in 1947.
The events, conflated with the newspaper and magazine reports, Roony’s short story, and the film The Wild One are part of the legend of the Hollister Riot. In the film, the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club roars into town with their president, Johnny (Brando). Notably, Johnny does not ride a Harley, but rather Brando rides his personal bike in the movie, a Triumph Thunderbird.
The film’s antagonist, Chino (Lee Marvin) is rumored to have been based on Hollister local Willie
Forkner better known as Wino Willie of the Boozefighters MC. Chino is grizzled with a cigar stuck in his mouth and heads up 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 a scene that perhaps foreshadows America’s fascination with the emerging biker culture, a 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.