Thursday, August 12, 2010

Daring To Get To The Root of Evel

Museum Exhibit Review

True Evel: The Amazing Story of Evel Knievel
Harley-Davidson Museum
Milwaukee, WI
Thru September 6, 2010

I'm about two months away from turning 42, which for the mathematically challenged means I was born in 1968 and spent most of my formative years in the 1970s. I was a bit too young to know Muhammad Ali and Led Zeppelin until close to the end of their heydays, but along with Walter Payton and the Fonz, one of the foremost cultural icons of my early childhood was Evel Knievel.

I consciously remember coverage of his ill-fated attempt to jump Utah's Snake River Canyon in 1974 in a personal rocket, his scrapped attempt (due to wiping out in practice and injuring both himself and a cameraman) to jump a shark tank at Chicago's International Amphitheatre in 1976, various appearances on ABC's "Wide World of Sports" and stories of his numerous broken bones, including having broken every bone in his body at one point or another. And when my Dad delighted the family and made me the envy of my friends in about fourth or fifth grade by buying a home pinball machine, the model was an Evel Knievel Bally machine that remains part of the family until this day.

So although I've never been a motorcycle rider nor much of a Harley-Davidson enthusiast (despite long perceiving it as one of the world's most powerful brands), when I noticed that there would be an Evel Knievel exhibit at the Harley-Davidson Museum, I took note and Tuesday afternoon, I drove up for a visit.

I started by exploring the HD museum proper, which was worthwhile in its own right and gave me a nice overview of the legendary motorcycle company's origins in Milwaukee, its growth, the cultural impact of its "hogs," periodic struggles and impressive success over its 107-year history. The earliest existing "Harley" is pictured above, while a pair of bikes replicating those used in "Easy Rider" are at right.

The Harley-Davidson museum is a complex unto itself, separate from the company headquarters, local factory or bike dealership, although I understand that factory tours are given as part of the museum entry on certain days (not Tuesday, when I was there). So after lunch at the Racer Cafe, rather than the more elaborate Motor restaurant nor options at the nearby, but seemingly not HD-owned Iron Horse Hotel, I headed to the Archives Building, where the True Evel exhibit is being held through September 6th.

Although the Evel Knievel exhibit wasn't huge,  it was well curated and presented with highlights including the Sky Cycle (a cycle in name only) used in the Snake River Canyon jump and a couple of his more traditional motorcycles.

While the exhibit celebrates Harley's relationship with Knievel, it was impressively honest in presenting how Evel could often be difficult to deal with--he would commonly send his HD Marketing contact "suggestions"--and how the relationship was frequently tenuous at best. Keep in mind that, as I learned in the main museum, during the time of Harley-Davidson's sponsorship of Evel, it was actually owned by AMF. This period is now looked upon as a low point in the storied history of Harley-Davidson, and although companies are always quite bottom line-conscious, HD was was especially so during the time that it was connected with Knievel.

Knievel, who passed away in 2007, was a mass of contradictions; at times he was admired & adored, but especially after an unsuccessful stunt, was often ridiculed and lampooned. His unique "career," complete with all sorts of Evel Knievel toys, made him quite wealthy, but lavish spending left him on the verge of bankruptcy. He was a master showman and in some ways a role model to kids like me for the courage he showed in getting back on the bike even after terrible mishaps, but the fact that he would attempt such crazy stunts caused a lot of kids to imitate him in ways that might not have been in their best interests.

There have certainly been other daredevils throughout history, including Knievel's son Robbie, but to my familiarity, there has never really been anyone quite him. And as the strong exhibit shows, along with an abundance of silliness, there was quite a lot of good in Evel.

(Here's one quick Evel Knievel jump clip. Many more can be found through YouTube and a page dedicated to his connection with Wide World of Sports.)

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