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60th Anniversary Hollister Motorcycle Rally

By “LoDown” Dan Parker

Restoring a legend

Historic rally comes back strong

Hollister, Calif., July 7—As the sun set on Saturday, the high point of the 2007 Hollister rally, the consensus held that the 60th anniversary of the event that reputedly spawned the biker lifestyle was a big success. Promoter Seth Dalton of Horse Power Promotions, his sponsors, and the new Hollister rally committee headed by local businesswoman Charisse Tyson had indeed come up winners if sheer numbers of visitors, money spent, beer chugged, and barbecue consumed are the standards of measurement.

Dalton’s bet on 7/7/07 was risky. After all, the Hollister doings had already petered out twice before. Home to motorcycle hill climbs, flat track races and general rider revelry in the 1930s and ’40s, the rally here was revived in the late 1990s after decades of slumber. In 2006, however, only a few folks showed up for a nonevent after the old Hollister rally committee went broke and the rally itself went kaput. Again. So it took a brave heart to believe the third time might be the charm.

By Sunday evening, local news media were reporting that some 100,000 folks—many but not all on Harley-Davidson motorcycles—had funneled through town buying souvenirs and eating and drinking everything in their path (other unofficial guesstimates ranged as high as 200,000 attendees). For miles around, motel occupancy swelled. It was official: The Hollister Motorcycle Rally was back. Welcome home bikers (along with your tourist dollars).

In the eyes of promoter Dalton, Hollister 2007 was “an overwhelming success” that was “far, far above my wildest dreams.” He referenced good-sized crowds on Friday and huge attendance numbers for Saturday. He reported that the nearly 300 vendors seemed pleased and that there were a limited number of public safety issues associated with rally hours.

History repeats?
The 2007 rally banners and T-shirts reference 1947 in Hollister as the jumping-off spot for the modern biker lifestyle. Exactly what happened here over the July 4th holiday 60 years ago is open to debate. (For illumination and context, read “The Original Wild Ones: Tales of the Boozefighters Motorcycle Club,” a book by Thunder Press contributor Bill Hayes, available at www.bikertruth.com.)

Whatever spin one puts on those yesteryear events, it is clear that many, many motorcyclists descended on this Central California town—founded in the 1870s as a farming community, a character it retains today—for a traditional holiday weekend that included racing on both the officially sanctioned track and, for the free spirits in attendance, the local streets. Plenty of beer was drunk and more than a little post-World War II steam was let off by the returning U.S. military vets who made up a large part of the bike club scene in those days. In a word, it was a real biker party.

Naturally, some beer bottles got broken. There were some arrests too. Finally, state cops showed up to buck up the nerve of the local constabulary (the local police force then numbered between three and five officers). The news media weighed in with some sensational reporting about bikers taking over a small California town. But accounts by many who participated in the events of ’47 tell of lots of good-natured, if somewhat rowdy, fun being had (after all, guys who had risked their lives for country and kin didn’t want a bunch of dweebs with clipboards telling them how to ride their scoots).

Some garish, patently fictional accounts of Hollister and other “biker invasions” of small California towns were ginned up later for mass readership. A movie in the early 1950s—Stanley Kramer’s “The Wild One” starring Lee Marvin and Marlon Brando—based loosely on Hollister sealed the deal: Motorcyclists were, at best, portrayed as antisocial screwballs. At worst, bike riders clad in black leather were the new All-American bad guys and girls. None of this sat too well on the shoulders of this city’s fathers and mothers. Every effort was made to ensure that this particular chapter in history did not, in fact, repeat itself.

But there is that other saying about the healing done by time. And maybe there was some of that at work but, whatever the reasons, the 1947 events in Hollister also grew over the decades to almost mythic proportions as the stories were told and retold and, no doubt, improved upon some. Many sage biker heads nodded toward Hollister and declared, “It all started there.” Possibly. Nevertheless, the 50th anniversary in 1997 kicked off a nine-year revival run for the new Hollister Independence Rally. During successive Fourth of July holidays, riders rolled in and parked their bikes in the middle of town while vendors set up on the side streets.

Never quite a comfortable match for some of the community (principally local law enforcement, who saw it soaking up local resources better used elsewhere), the old “new” rally ran out of gas after 2005. After a one-year hiatus, Seth Dalton and company put up over $380,000 this year to pay primarily for local law enforcement coverage and public services. With that, the “new” new 2007 Hollister Rally was on. (In Hollister this year it was easy to see where the “down payment” money went with teams of law enforcement officers very visible throughout the rally, including helicopters overhead and surveillance teams posted high up on local buildings).

Proudly then, the banners up and down Hollister’s main drag this year declared this as, “The birthplace of the American Biker.” And, why not?

A new sheriff in town
Arriving at the 2007 Hollister Rally, it was easy to see that lots had changed. First off, it was no longer held on the July Fourth weekend (since the 4th fell on a Wednesday, it was a little hard to tell). It was, however, clear that the word “Independence” had been dropped from the run title. But, according to Dalton and company, the national holiday weekend placed too many demands on local community services when a bike rally was added to the mix.

Most significantly, riders could no longer park their bikes in the middle of San Benito Street as in days of yore. Instead, several blocks of the main drag were closed to all traffic and vendors’ wares were set out there. Those looking for bike parking had three choices: Purchase a $25 VIP package that included up-close parking privileges in special lots (also a run pin, a bike cleaning kit, some discount coupons and video of the event); pay $5 a day to park in the same lot (the money going to support local church activities); or find a free curbside spot in the nearby residential neighborhoods.

Conducting a very unscientific poll of vendors and attendees, Thunder Press learned that the new layout was clearly a hit with the rally vendors and also pleased lots of the town’s regular shop owners as well. Even at the height of attendance on Saturday afternoon, the pedestrian flow of consumer traffic circulated easily up, down, and around San Benito Street. However, some attendees—particularly those familiar with the old setup—were a bit miffed at being moved off center stage. Others were happy to pop the five bucks for secure parking. Newbies, of course, didn’t know the difference.

A family affair—for kinky families
With a decidedly mainstream atmosphere—more of a street fair with bikes tossed in—Hollister bike rider numbers were augmented noticeably by many a stroller-pushing mom and dad. Gaggles of general tourists and locals ranging from twittering teenagers to grandparents filled out the mostly PG bill of fare. Still, if one looked closely, there were plenty of T-shirts with salacious slogans, several booths operated by various Red & White chapters, more than a little flesh on display, and even a dominatrix or two on hand.

Other new wrinkles at the 60th Anniversary Party included an additional vendor village at Fourth and Monterey Streets that also featured live music, a stunt rider, and youth boxing and martial arts exhibitions. Just outside the village, Star Motorcycles (that would be Yamaha’s V-twin cruiser line) was giving demo rides. Across the street was a builders’ square (but nothing got built) with exhibits from the likes of Kirk Taylor and his Northern California-based Custom Design Studio, Scott Long’s Central Coast Cycles, trendy old-school builder Chica, and many others.

Taylor was unabashed in his support of the new approach to the Hollister Rally, declaring it a premier West Coast event that is “good for the community and good for the motorcycle industry.” Of the new layout, Taylor said he likes it because “it’s forcing the people to walk through (the entire venue).” Previously, he maintained, riders just parked on the main street and for any vendor “a block off the main drag you could hear the crickets chip.”

Scott Long, whose bike shop is some 35 miles northwest of Hollister in the beach community of Santa Cruz, was also glad to see the rally revived, saying the Hollister Rally may well get as big as Sturgis. He maintained that turning the rally organization over to independent promoter Seth Dalton was a key move.

Live music was performed on three separate stages with the likes of the Mofo Party Band, Brad Wilson, Charlie Brechtel, and others. Between band sets, special events like a fashion show and the Ms. Hollister contest kept attendees entertained. When the shimmies stopped shaking, Jenn Riggs of Hollister took the Ms. Hollister crown with Janine Garcia, also a local, in second. Third place went to Brittany Vidales of nearby Santa Cruz.

Getting into the act
At the Granada movie theater the free all-day bill of fare featured biker flicks like “The Wild One” and “Easy Rider.” A small but quality showing of custom bikes lured many over to Corbin Square where the Ego Trip Custom Wheels bike show held forth. Sixteen first place trophies were awarded over as many classes and categories. In other areas, locals got in on the rally act, with the Top Hatters MC holding a poker run and a poker walk. Over at the United Methodist Church there was an all-you-could-scarf biker breakfast for $8. All over town, platoons of local volunteers pitched in to make the rally a success.

On Sunday afternoon, there was a reunion of several original members of the local Top Hatters motorcycle club (back in the day a social and bike racing outfit), including Harry Prater who, now just north of 90 years old, was the Hatters’ president in 1947. All—including brothers Peter and Johnny Lomanto and their wives Carmen and Babe, brothers Jess and Joe Bravo, and some of the group’s younger relatives—reminisced about the event that started it all in Hollister 60 years ago. Johnny Lomanto summed it up for the group, telling an appreciative crowd, “It feels great; we’re still here.”

If it could be fried, grilled or barbecued—and especially if it could be served on a stick or just eaten while walking—it was available at Hollister. Those adults who needed something to wash it all down could hit the Budweiser beer gardens or pile into local hot spots like Johnny’s Bar and Grill, Whiskey Creek, or the Vault.

As to public safety issues, 2007 was apparently a low-water mark for trouble. The Gilroy Dispatch, a local newspaper, said there were 48 arrests during the 2007 rally (most for alcohol or drugs), compared to 65 in 2005 and 75 the year before that. (Early estimates were that roughly half the arrests were related to the rally). However, builder Kirk Taylor spoke for many of the attendees when he said, “We need to do something to reduce the police presence (at the Hollister rally).” He maintained that Sturgis was a good role model insofar as having adequate police presence that is nevertheless “not as felt.” The biker community, he said, is pretty good at policing itself.

Promoter Seth Dalton was more sanguine about the police presence at the rally. Citing the proximity of residential areas to the rally action, Dalton said Hollister Police Chief Jeff Miller was justified in “doing whatever he thought was necessary to keep this place safe.” Prior to the rally, local officials announced that a “zero tolerance” law enforcement policy would be in force over the weekend. After the rally, Chief Miller was quoted in local news accounts as being concerned about the presence of “outlaw chopper gangs” and street gang members as well.

What does the future hold for the Hollister Rally? According to Dalton, it only gets bigger and better from here on in. With Sturgis as his template, Dalton says he’d like to see the Hollister event expand to include racing and hill climbs like in the days of yore and “make it a bike week.” Dalton reports that the 2008 Hollister Rally is set for July 11–13. Mark your calendars and watch Thunder Press for complete rally information.

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