Today, “Evel Knievel” is synonymous with spectacular acts of bravery (or depending on your perspective, utter stupidity). Back in the 1960s, he was just Robert “Bobby” Craig Knievel, a jack-of-all-trades from Butte, Montana.
Nearly half a century later, Evel Knievel represents the stuff of legend, an all-American folk hero for generations young and old.
On July 10, the Harley Davidson Museum opens the largest retrospective exhibit for the infamous stuntman. True Evel: The Amazing Story of Evel Knievel encompasses the iconic daredevil’s humble beginnings, rise to and subsequent decline from fame, eventual comeback and his undeniable influences on American culture.
A born showman, Knievel did all of his own promotions when he began performing motorcycle tricks in the early 1960s, enticing crowds with promises to jump 20 feet worth of rattlesnakes, rows of cars and just about anything else you can name.
In 1970, he signed an exclusive contract with Harley Davidson to only ride and endorse Milwaukee Iron. Knievel’s ties to Milwaukee and to the Davidson family run deep. On our tour, Bill Davidson recalled his childhood memories of Evel, reminiscing about watching some of his famous jumps and reflecting on the man behind the fancy jumpsuit.
Most of the exhibit features artifacts on loan from Evel’s son, Kelly Knievel, and about ten private collections as well. Telegrams, ledgers, jewelery, x-rays(!), manuscripts, bills, leathers and of course, motorcycles are on display, including a list of all of the bones he (repeatedly) broke over the years.
Between 1967 and 1974, Evel Knievel’s popularity grew tenfold. He was on the cover of Rolling Stone. Movies were made. He was spending money left and right on gold jewelery, fur coats, a Rolls Royce and even a Lear Jet. I think my favorite photo from the exhibit is one of Evel and friends, literally scooping up money with coal shovels and stashing it in Knievel’s vault.
But nothing lasts forever. After a failed attempt to jump Snake River Canyon, fans and sponsors began to lose interest. After another disappointing stunt at Wembly Stadium in 1975, Knievel announced that he would never jump again. He was back at it five months later, though, and went on to try his hand at a few unsuccessful crossover business ventures.
In the meantime, he racked up a lot of debt. Evel didn’t quite believe in paying income taxes, at least not in his line of work, so he didn’t.
One of the letters on display, dated October 17, 1981 sums it up perfectly:
Please be advised that as of this date, I owe, in personal income taxes for the past ten years, over one million dollars, plus accrued interest to the Internal Revenue Service, United State of America.
Every once in a while, if I feel like it, I reach into a big hat to check on some of the unpaid bills I have. Now, if you don’t stop sending me these nasty letters, I’m gonna take your name out of the God-damn hat.
Evel Knievel, Esq.
Evel Knievel transformed sideshow acts into death-defying feats, adding his own brand of glamor decked out in red, white and blue leathers and encrusted with gold and sparkling jewels.
Today, his influences are seen in everything from the meretricious spectacle of pro wrestling, to the boneheaded antics of Jackass, extreme sports — hell, right down to every kid that’s ever built a ramp for their bike/skateboard/razor scooter.
Displays filled with Evel memorabilia like comic books, Big Wheels, lunchboxes, pain relief ointment, chain lube and even barbeque sauce demonstrate the cultural obsession with the underdog stuntman.
“It’s hard to over-estimate his impact on sports and pop culture,” says Jim Fricke, the Museum’s curatorial director, “Evel Knievel took his sideshow act to center stage and turned it into an international franchise.”
True Evel opens on July 10 and runs through September 6, 2010. The Harley Davidson Museum has also arranged for a series of ancillary events, including an intimate evening with Evel’s son, Kelly Knievel on July 17 and a BMX stunt show August 28 &29. Motor will also feature a special Evel-inspired menu, including Lakefront Brewery’s limited edition True Evel Daredevil Ale (it’s delicious, by the way). For more information, check out their website.