Hollister Braces for Biker Gathering
The safest place on Earth during the Fourth of July weekend will be a small bar in Hollister called Johnny’s, according to some residents, business people and even the mayor of this hamlet of 25,000.
The reason is simple: the Oakland Hells Angels have selected the downtown saloon as their weekend headquarters to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the birth of the outlaw biker movement.
“If I had a 14-year-old virgin daughter, that’s where I’d want her to be,” said Bob Valenzuela, a Hollister native who owns Bob’s Video.
Other residents vehemently disagreed, fearing there will be no haven in all of Hollister when the bikers return. Many families are leaving town to escape the madness they envision will engulf the streets.
“You’d have to be a masochist to be in Hollister then,” said businessman Albert Lathinson.
The Hells Angels have spent other weekends in Hollister, the self-proclaimed earthquake capital, without shaking up the place.
But this holiday weekend is different, many residents say. They fear a reprise of what happened on Independence Day in 1947, what the San Francisco Chronicle called “the worst 40 hours in the history of Hollister.”
Fifty years ago, a South-Central Los Angeles motorcycle club called the Boozefighters, led by “Wino” Willie Forkner and J. D. Cameron, careened and wheelied onto the streets of Hollister. They fought, guzzled whiskey and at one point plotted to bust one of their brethren out of jail.
Life magazine later published a notorious photo of a beer-guzzling biker in front of a Hollister bar and a legend was born.
This weekend, on the golden anniversary of the notorious incident that inspired the 1954 Marlon Brando movie “The Wild One”, thousands of bikers are expected to descend on this town 45 miles south of San Jose.
By the local sheriff’s estimate, more than 100,000 bikers from all parts of the world are expected to show up.
The bikers are gathering not only to relive the legend of the Wild Ones, but also to mourn the passing of one of their heroes, Forkner, who died June 22 of heart disease.
Forkner, a World War II veteran, was one of the founding members of the Boozefighters. He was known as a hard-living man who loved motorcycles, booze and street fighting.
Just two days before his death, Forkner told a reporter he was eager to return to Hollister to see his old friends.
“Wino will be there in spirit and we’ll be drinking plenty of spirits in his honor,” said 6-foot, 5-inch, 250-pound “Big Hearted” Bill Boltz, 38, who works at an insurance company in San Diego. “I’m gonna stay perpetually drunk all weekend.
“I hope I have a job when I get back. They think I pretend to be a biker on the weekend, but I pretend to be a businessman on the week.”
The early Boozefighters paved the way for the Hells Angels, whose leader Sonny Barger will lead a caravan of Harley-Davidson choppers south from Oakland this week. In his 1966 book “Hell’s Angels,” author Hunter Thompson wrote of the two groups: “The Boozefighters were as numerous and fearsome in their time as the Angels are today.”
Amid the fear and loathing in town, some Hollister residents see the holiday weekend as a chance to cash in.
“Half the people are for the event,” said Josh Jensen, owner of the Calara winery outside of the city. “They say, ‘Let’s welcome them. We can show them hospitality and take their money.’ And the other half want to barricade the city and keep everyone out.”
The optimistic are hoping for a more mellow gathering, a West Coast Woodstock of sorts. There will be rock bands from the 1960s and ‘70s, including Steppenwolf, Foghat, Blue Oyster Cult and Eddie Money, playing at three venues.
More then 10,000 area hotel rooms have been booked, according to the San Benito County Sheriff’s Department. Vendors will be out in full force selling motorcycle accessories and T-shirts.
No one appears to be looking forward to the event as much as the city’s bar owners.
“I’m gonna have six full-time bartenders instead of one,” said Gary Smith, owner of the Brand Club, one of three major bars in town.
All alcohol will be poured into plastic cups so there will be no flying beer bottles. “All the glass will be put away this weekend,” Smith said.
Hollister’s Police Department has canceled all vacations for the weekend and bolstered its force of 24 with 100 additional officers from neighboring departments. Capt. Bob Brooks said he doesn’t anticipate problems but added that if things get out of control, the police will be ready.
“We are going to be treating people on their actions, not their reputations,” Brooks said.
Hollister’s mayor, 31-year-old Joseph Felice, is publicly supporting the event and says he doesn’t think the bikers will replay the incidents of 50 years ago.
The mayor agreed with others who say that because Hollister is considered Hells Angels territory, outsiders will not be brazen enough to cause problems.
“We’re really excited about this working on a very professional level,” Felice said. “The bikers of today are not like the wild ones of old.”
San Benito County Sheriff Harvey Nyland also said the bikers have cleaned up their image considerably.
“The majority of riders are older [than the 1947 crowd],” Nyland said. “The bikes are expensive, and it is more of the yuppie groups that are riding. I don’t expect a repeat of ’47.”
Some residents, however, worried that outlaw bikers such as those from rival groups will use the anniversary gathering as an excuse to get drunk and tear up the town.
Among those expected to attend are members of the Texas-based Bandidos, who have been locked in a deadly three-year feud with the Hells Angels in Scandinavia. The feuding included a missile attack in Denmark that claimed two lives.
“Don’t you think this is a golden opportunity for the bikers to make a statement that they all aren’t a bunch of rich weekend bikers?” said a Hollister resident who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Others figured that the sheer number of visitors roaring into town spelled trouble.
“If you had 100,000 people from the Catholic Church get together, you’re gonna have problems,” said Salvador Beltran, a retired city employee who has lived in Hollister for 39 years. “That many people drinking beer, something is bound to happen.”