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Hollister Kicks Its Annual Biker Rally to the Curb

February 27, 2006|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

HOLLISTER, Calif. — This sunbaked town in the shadow of the Diablo Range sits at the unlikely crossroads of two distinct lifestyles: those of its hard-working farmer-ranchers and the often hell-raising motorcyclists who invade each summer.

The city known as the "Birthplace of the American Biker" plays host to an annual Fourth of July rally -- an engine-revving frenzy of tens of thousands of leather-clad partyers who rumble down Hollister's main drag atop vintage Harleys, souped-up choppers, German-made touring bikes and just about everything else with an engine and pair of spoked wheels.

But the infamous event -- which inspired the 1953 Hollywood cult classic "The Wild One," starring Marlon Brando -- has skidded to a halt.

The City Council voted earlier this month to cancel the rally, kick-starting a dispute that has divided this community of 38,000 residents, pitting San Benito County's plain-talking sheriff, Curtis Hall, against Hollister's Harley-riding mayor, Robert Scattini.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 01, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Motorcycle rally -- An article on Monday's Section A about the cancellation of the annual Fourth of July weekend biker event in Hollister, Calif., misspelled the last name of San Benito County Sheriff Curtis Hill as Hall.

Hall calls the rally "a dirty, rotten, stinking event" that draws both Hells Angels and Mongols, competing gangs that he said had a tense face-off at last July's rally. Scattini insists the bikers are an important part of his town's history.

"Those bikers put Hollister on the map, and now these people want to turn their back on them," he said. "Some people would rather celebrate July Fourth with a wine festival or rodeo or some pony pulling a covered wagon down Main Street. I'm not going to allow them to turn this into an unfriendly little town."

Yet many are applauding the rally's demise, saying the annual crush of cycles is so loud that it drives many residents away for the holiday and forces some pet owners to place their frightened animals on tranquilizers for the weekend.

"Some folks see those bikers as one big nuisance," said Councilwoman Monica Johnson, noting that the rally draws up to 60,000 motorcyclists to Hollister each day over the holiday weekend. "That's a lot of people. I have safety concerns. This is earthquake country. What happens if we have a big one when all those people are here?"

Cyclists see the move as a slap in the face to a Harley-riding, wheelie-popping tradition that dates back 60 years.

"Bikers are insulted by this," said Marlon Moss, a local sign maker and rally enthusiast who repeats his first name when introducing himself: "That's Marlon," he says, "as in Brando."

The event closes Hollister's main thoroughfare to everything but the motorcyclists, who wander the downtown listening to live music and perusing the stalls of vendors selling everything from leather brassieres to motorcycle-shaped bottle openers. Many camp out. Others pack the town's motels, eateries and bars.

But enthusiasts insist the event is more than just drinking beer and howling at the moon.

"These biker rallies are show-and-tell events," Moss said. "People walk the streets and look at each other's bikes. They meet old friends and make new ones."

Depending on whom you ask, this town 90 miles south of San Francisco ran out of money or patience for its signature rally -- or both.

Officials say the event has simply become too expensive.

In 2004, state law enforcement officials began charging for security and traffic enforcement. Last fall, the city paid $250,000 after promoters balked at paying the bill.

Many motorcyclists are threatening to come anyway. "You can't cancel freedom," one wrote on a local Internet chat site. "Spread the word, we're coming." He added a postscript for Hollister officials: "The fools, the poor, poor fools."

Perhaps no one is more upset than the customers at Johnny's bar and grill, a biker hangout. The regulars claim that the ghost of Wino Willie is out there somewhere, riding his mythical motorcycle, and he's one angry hombre.

Wino Willie Fortner, patrons say, was a hell-raising biker in a band called the Boozefighters that descended on Hollister in a notorious 1947 incident -- one that inspired Brando's legendary role and helped establish the motorcycle as a symbol of youthful rebellion.

The film also made Fortner a local hero. His ashes now reside in an urn inside Johnny's. And while customers know that Wino Willie is a goner, they worry that the rally he helped make famous might be history as well.

"It's a sad day for Hollister," said bartender Sylvia Combie, serving bottles of Coors and Budweiser to a midday crowd.

The rally's sponsors have considered moving the event down the road to San Juan Bautista. Councilman Chuck Geiger said he'd gladly take the rally off Hollister's hands to improve his town's flagging finances.

But after rally sponsors met with city officials this week, residents got cold feet, including one, according to a story in the Hollister Free Lance, who told the City Council: "I love bikers.... And I think it would be great to sit down and have a pancake breakfast with them. But I don't know if San Juan can handle much more than that."

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