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How the outlaw biker gang culture got its start in a small California town

In 1947, a motorcycle gang incident made Hollister, Calif., an international symbol of bikers out of control

What happened on July 4, 1947, in the small town of Hollister, Calif., was far from the most violent motorcycle gang incident.

But for a variety of reasons, including an infamous Life magazine photo and Marlon Brando, Hollister became an international symbol of bikers out of control. It also helped start the image of bikers as American rebels.

The riot made headlines. But it became immortalized by the 1953 film version of the events, “The Wild One.” In it, Marlon Brando plays one of the rebellious bikers, uttering an iconic piece of dialogue.

When Brando's character is asked, “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” he responds: “Whaddaya got?”

Against the backdrop of the deadly biker gang shootout in Texas, here’s a retrospective of the facts and myths of Hollister from The Times archives:

What exactly happened in Hollister?

In the years just after World War II, California became a magnet for weekend motorcycling, popular with returning servicemen, many of whom had learned to ride bikes in the military.

That July 4 in 1947, a motorcycle race was planned outside Hollister, and 4,000 people attended.

According to a Times report, members of the Boozefighters gang got drunk, jumped the curb and rode their motorcycles into Johnny's Bar on Hollister’s main drag. One Boozefighter was arrested for attempting to pour alcohol into a bus radiator. In the end, dozens were arrested and many were injured. Media reports claimed the bikers “took over” the town.

The problems were described by the San Francisco Chronicle as the worst incident in Hollister history.

The 1947 revelry was captured in a famously staged Life magazine photograph showing a loutish male rider swilling beer from a bottle on a parked Harley roadster, a sea of empties around his front wheel.

Were there other biker problems?

A year later, motorcycle gangs descended on Riverside, and there was more trouble.

The Times reported that “veterans” of the Hollister violence were involved in the riots, which led to the arrests of 46 people.

How did “The Wild One” come about?

The Life picture of Hollister inspired a fictional Harper's magazine short story by Frank Rooney. The short story, in turn, inspired the classic 1953 film “The Wild One,” starring Brando.

The film carried a disclaimer that would be endorsed enthusiastically by some Hollister residents: “This is a shocking story that could never take place in most American towns — but it did in this one. It is a public challenge not to let it happen again.”

How is Hollister remembered?

In 1996, reporter Michael Krikorian talked to some members of the Boozefighters about Hollister. They said it was a less violent time, compared to some deadly biker violence that would follow.

“It was a time when you could have a fistfight with someone and when it was over, you'd have a beer together,” said J.D. Cameron, who was described then as one of the last surviving founders of the Boozefighters. “This was way before all this guns and dope crap.”

Cameron and others said despite “The Wild One,” many bikers didn’t feel they were rebelling against society.

“We just wanted to have some fun. And we sure did.”

Asked about being a rebel, Cameron added: “Well, I guess I'm rebelling against discrimination. Ya know, all kinds, but for me, just because someone's a biker, they got rules against you.”

And what about the “The Wild One”?

“I hated that movie.”

Source: Times reports

shelby.grad@latimes.com

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