American Experience

S34 E1 | CLIP

When Blue Jeans Got a Bad Name

Over the fourth of July weekend in 1947, 4,000 motorcycle riders, wearing leather jackets and blue jeans roared into Hollister, California for a three-day rally. The small town woke to motorcyclists in an unusual uniform: leather jackets and blue jeans.

AIRED: February 07, 2022 | 0:07:14
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TRANSCRIPT

[Narrator] The headlines shouted 'havoc' and 'terror' over the Fourth of July weekend in 1947.

During the weekend, 4000 motorcycle riders roared into Hollister, California, for a three day rally.

The small town woke to motorcyclists in an unusual uniform: leather jackets and blue jeans.

James Sullivan: A bunch of young men who were part of a biker gang showed up just looking for a good time

and took over the town and effectively terrorized the townsfolk.

Openly drinking, falling down drunk in the streets.

Bill Hayes: But it was never the riot and the pandemonium that it was made out to be in the media shortly thereafter.

[Narrator] But riot and pandemonium are what has been remembered and denim has remained 'outlaw fashion.

[Narrator] In the years after World War Two, motorcycling became popular with returning soldiers

who learned to ride bikes in the military.

Veterans formed small motorcycle crews and made club sweaters atop one common fashion item: blue jeans.

The National American Motorcyclist Association held events that featured racing and field meets.

After the war, Hollister, California, was set to host an A.M.A. racing event.

[Narrator] Early Friday morning, the bikers began pouring into town.

Members of the Boozefighters, led by founder and veteran "Wino" Willie Forkner, made their presence known almost immediately.

Hayes: Wino was right there, you know, at the forefront,

there were pictures of him laying in the streets with this oversize bottle.

And some of his other guys, you know, rode their bikes through Johnny's Tavern and so forth.

[Narrator] Members of the Tracy Gear Jammers were photographed in matching jeans throughout town.

As the crowd swelled, bikers and townsfolk watched wheelie and burn out displays as well as impromptu races.

Sullivan: These young people came into town and disrespected the locals and didn't treat the town very well.

[Narrator] That evening, the main strip of San Benito Street was overrun with motorcycles

and the Hollister police closed the road.

The overwhelmed police force advised bartenders to close early.

[Narrator] On Saturday, crowds watched racing competitions at Memorial Park

featuring the Motor Maids of America and the Galloping Gooses.

By nightfall, the celebration was spilling onto the streets, which were littered with beer bottles.

Hayes: The picture that came out in the newspaper that became this iconic and infamous portrait

of the beginning of the biker culture, but it was a picture set up by a San Francisco newspaper reporter

named Barney Peterson.

He set this guy up, put him on a bike, he put all those broken glass around and there's various versions of the picture.

It's like, OK, let's do this, let's do that and then take it again.

Take it again.

[Narrator] Scores of bikers were treated at local hospitals for minor injuries, and dozens of arrests were made

for misdemeanors such as public drunkenness and disorderly conduct.

Before long, California Highway Patrol officers arrived to contain the event.

[Narrator] Days later, a sensational article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Sullivan: When the San Francisco Chronicle picked up the story from Hollister, you know, the townspeople were terrorized

by this marauding gang of bikers.

The story ran on the front page, and at that point, the story went national.

Hayes: You know, and that picture came out in LIFE magazine.

Sullivan: Because everybody had LIFE magazine on their coffee tables at the time.

So suddenly, America was obsessed with this idea that your small town was going to get invaded

by a bunch of marauding motorcycle riders who were, of course, wearing blue jeans.

[Narrator] These reports led to ongoing remembrances of the events in Hollister as a "riot" and an "invasion."

[Narrator] Entering the 1950s, fact blended with fiction as the media mythologized the Hollister events.

Harper's Magazine published a short story called "Cyclists' Raid" that featured illustrations in the January 1951 issue.

Then in 1954, Hollywood immortalized the weekend and its biker chic with the wild one.

The Wild One audio: Get off the track, come on!

Hayes: When the movie The Wild One came out, which was loosely based on Hollister.

If you look at the entire movie and you see Brando and you see Lee Marvin and all their boys and stuff, they've all got denim on.

All of that, that was like a suit of armor, really.

Sullivan: Marvin played the Wino Willie Forkner character.

And Brando, of course, is the one the guy in the motorcycle jacket, in the blue jeans who says,.

The Wild One audio: Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?

The Wild One audio, Johnny: What do you got?

Hayes: So it's pretty much at that time after Hollister and after all the media craziness that was applied to it,

well, suddenly bikers have become modern day outlaws.

[Narrator] And for many, the motorcycle outlaws now had a uniform: club leather jacket with a pair of blue jeans.

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