Marlon Brando and California Boozefighters Spawn Cossacks, Bandidos Biker Gangs

Columbia Pictures
Hollister, CA

On Independence Day in 1947, the rural community of Hollister, California hosted one of the first violent biker gang incidents in the nation’s history.

The ruckus generated by a bunch of motor cycle riders competing in a race in front of 4,000 people seems quite tame in the face of last weekend’s Twin Peaks Cossacks and Bandidos motorcycle riots that left nine people dead and 170 arrested.

According to a Salinas blog, John Lomanto owned a farm a few miles from Hollister. He was an avid motorcyclist and a well-known local racer. He described the situation as such:

I worked with my father on our farm, which was just a few miles from Hollister. We grew walnuts, apricots, and prunes. I had a ’41 Harley, and was one of the original members of the Hollister Top Hatters Motorcycle Club. In fact, the first few meetings were held in one of our barns, but later on we rented a clubhouse in downtown Hollister. We met three times month. We were a real club, with a President, a Secretary, a Treasurer, and all that. Our wives came, too. Our uniform was a yellow sweater with red sleeves. There were a few races going on that weekend; I think there was a 1/2 mile race, and a TT. I didn’t go to the races, but I rode my bike downtown. It was pretty exciting. The main street was blocked off, and the whole town was motorcycles all over the place. Everybody had a beer in their hand; I can’t say there weren’t a few drunks! But there was no real fighting – none of that.

Mark Gardiner, who also participated in the event, described the motorcycle club culture as “WWII veterans formed hundreds of small motorcycle clubs with names like the ‘Jackrabbits’, ’13 Rebels’, and ‘Yellow Jackets’. Members wore club sweaters; rode, drank and partied together; and organized informal motorcycle ‘field meets’. There was no sense of territoriality, or inter-club rivalry.”

Nevertheless, the event—known as the Hollister “motorcycle riot”– photographed by Life magazine and the subject of a subsequent 1953 movie starring Marlon Brando, The Wild One, romanticized the biker gatherings as a fixture in American folklore.

In the film, Brando plays one of the rebellious bikers and clarifies the spirit of America’s typical freewheeling biker in an iconic line of dialogue. When Brando’s character is asked, “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” he responds: “Whaddaya got?”

The Los Angeles Times reported that 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.”

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

Cameron insists that unlike the way they were portrayed in The Wild One,  bikers didn’t feel they were rebelling against society. “We just wanted to have some fun. And we sure did.” Cameron added, “I hated the movie.”