A New Museum Dares To Showcase Stuntman Evel Knievel

Jun 30, 2017
Originally published on June 30, 2017 9:09 am

Half a century ago war, protests, and political scandal rocked the United States. Sound familiar? But, out of all that a small-time hoodlum from Butte, Montana rocketed into national prominence, on a motorbike. Evel Knievel's career took off like a rocket, but crashed even faster. Now a new museum celebrates all that is Evel.

Robert Craig Knievel was the kind of kid you'd probably medicate these days-- an ornery, reckless small town guy always in trouble with the law. He tried lots of careers: mining, insurance, semi-pro hockey, and selling Honda motorcycles, before declaring himself a professional daredevil. He started with a jump over two mountain lions, and a box of agitated rattle snakes. By his late 20s he'd hustled his way into the national spotlight.

"Evel Knievel was an original. And to a lot of people, young people, he was a super hero," says Brad Zimmerman, director of the Evel Knievel Museum, in Topeka, Kansas.

Evel certainly dressed the part. With his flamboyant red, white and blue, motorbikes, helmets, leather jumpsuits, and, yes, capes, Knievel was part Elvis, part Liberace, part John Wayne.

"True dare devil," says Zimmerman. "Seat of the pants. Not much science. Just I can do this, so I'm going to do it. If you look at most of his motorcycles, they did not have speedometers on them."

Yeah, no speedometers, no special shocks, just instinct guiding heavy race bikes flying off wooden ramps. Knievel, made most of his 168 jumps, but he crashed 19 times, pulling himself up wreck after wreck to jump again. He attracted devoted fans like Rodney Brown.

"Just amazing he survived all the crashes and all the bones broken," says Brown, standing in the Evel Knievel museum. "He didn't care. He just did what he wanted to do, and lived his life, and that's the way it was."

Knievel's hutzpah, tenacity and flair vaulted him to international superstardom, and big money. Zimmerman says Knievel made millions just licensing his name.

One wall features a display of Evel's licensed products. "He had everything from barbeque sauce, to motor oil, to toys, pinball machines, slot machines, bicycles, you name it, they were putting Evel's name on it," says Zimmerman smiling at the display.

And around a corner, in freestanding showcase worthy of crown jewels, rests a savagely battered old motorcycle helmet. It's from Evel Knievel's most famous, and spectacular crash.

"That is the Caesars Palace helmet," boasts Zimmerman. "That's a pretty famous piece. Everybody's seen that video and there's the original helmet."

The film of Knievel trying something no one had ever attempted before, landing short, being tossed head first on to the pavement and tumbling like a ragdoll for some 60 feet, was broadcast over and over.

"The crashes are what made him famous," says Mike Patterson.

Patterson, who owns Historic Harley Davidson, which, not coincidentally, is right next to the new Evel Knievel Museum. Patterson is bankrolling and spearheading the museum displaying artifacts collected largely by Latham McKay. Patterson had life changing moment seeing Knievel jump, at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson when he was four years old. He remembers the day vividly.

"I was sitting next to my cousin, and I remember the sound. I mean there was a covered grandstand, so the bike's engine would kind of echo through the grandstand and it was kind of an eerie sound," recalls Patterson, of Knievel's pre-jump wheely show. "And, I remember just hoping he would go, waiting for him to go, sitting there on the edge of my seat, until he finally went."

Knievel cleared the 10 semi-trucks beautifully, that day in 1971, and locked in a fan who would eventually build him a museum.

"I think it does all kind of go back to that day, and the inspiration from that moment," says Patterson.

Heroic as he seemed though, Knievel's heavy drinking, gambling, and surly disposition weighed him down. He spent money even faster than he made it. His Snake River Canyon, rocket "skycycle" jump was a dismal failure. And when he was jailed for beating his former publicist with a baseball bat, the Evel Empire collapsed.

"When it flamed out, it flamed out pretty fast," says Patterson. "And I think, too, that's probably why there wasn't an Evel Knievel museum before now."

Knievel died of lung disease in 2007, but not before inspiring a huge industry around extreme sports, and a generation of risk-takers. Zimmerman says it's time to celebrate Evel.

"Evel had a big ego. When you're a star you have lots of ladies throwing themselves at you. Alcohol was something that he was interested in," admits Zimmerman. "But for the most part we're focused on the positives of Evel here in the museum."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A half a century ago, a daredevil from Butte, Mont., rocketed into national prominence on a motorbike. Frank Morris of member station KCUR tells us about a new museum celebrating all that is Evel - Evel Knievel, that is.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Robert Knievel was an ornery, reckless kid always in trouble with the law. He started jumping motorcycles over stuff like mountain lions, boxes of rattlesnakes and then trucks. By his late 20s, he'd hustled his way into the national spotlight.

BRAD ZIMMERMAN: Evel Knievel was an original. And to a lot of people, young people, he was a super hero.

MORRIS: As Brad Zimmerman, who runs that just opened Evil Knievel Museum in Topeka, Kan., points out, Evel dressed the part. With his flamboyant red, white and blue leather jumpsuits, helmets and capes, Evel was part Elvis, part Liberace, part John Wayne.

ZIMMERMAN: True daredevil - seat of the pants, not much science, just I can do this, so I'm going to do it. If you look at most of his motorcycles, they did not have speedometers on them.

MORRIS: Yeah, no speedometers, no special shocks, just instinct guiding heavy race bikes flying off wooden ramps.

(SOUNDBITE OF YELL)

MORRIS: Even a virtual reality jump at the museum is enough to shake up some visitors.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That's hilarious.

MORRIS: In real life, Knievel crashed and crashed and crashed and got up for more, attracting fans bands like Rodney Brown.

RODNEY BROWN: It's just amazing he survived all the crashes and all the bones broken. And just - he didn't care. He just did what he wanted to do. And he lived his life, and that's the way it was.

MORRIS: Knievel's chutzpah, tenacity, and flair vaulted him to national stardom. Zimmerman says he made millions just licensing his name.

ZIMMERMAN: Along this wall then, we have a display of the licensed products that Evel had. I mean, he had everything from barbecue sauce to motor oil to toys to a pinball machines, slot machines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: This is Evel Knievel and the Evel Knievel Shock-Absorbing Stunt Cycle.

ZIMMERMAN: You name it; they were putting Evel's name on it.

MORRIS: And around the corner, in a freestanding showcase worthy of crowned jewels, rests a savagely battered old motorcycle helmet. It's from Evel Knievel's most famous and spectacular crash, where he landed head-first and tumbled 60 feet.

ZIMMERMAN: That is the Caesar's Palace helmet in the top, so that's a pretty famous piece. Everybody has seen that video, and there's the original helmet.

MIKE PATTERSON: The crashes are what made him famous.

MORRIS: Mike Patterson, who owns a Harley-Davidson shop in Topeka, is bankrolling the museum, showcasing stuff collected mostly by Lathan McKay. Seeing Knievel jump at the Kansas State Fair is Patterson's earliest childhood memory.

PATTERSON: I remember just hoping he would go, waiting for him to go - sitting there on the edge of my seat, you know, until he finally went.

MORRIS: Heroic as he seemed, Knievel's heavy drinking, gambling and surly disposition weighed him down. When he was jailed for beating his former publicist with a baseball bat, the Evel empire collapsed.

PATTERSON: When it flamed out, it flamed out pretty fast. And I think that's why, too, there probably wasn't an Evel Knievel Museum before now.

MORRIS: Knievel died a decade ago, of lung disease, but not before inspiring a huge industry around extreme sports and a generation of risk-takers. Museum director Zimmerman says it's time to celebrate what he calls the positives of Evel.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.