This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the first motorcycle toy run, jointly sponsored by the Modified Motorcycle Association and the San Fernando Valley charter of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. The run featured 200 hundred motorcycles, two truckloads of toys, a television star named Art Linkletter and very many policemen. The ride started in Griffith Park in Los Angeles and ended at City Hall eight miles away.
Then, as now, the police were appalled by the idea. The Los Angeles Times quoted the opinion of one El Lay cop who thought, “I suppose Hitler did some good things, too.”
A week after the first toy run The Skyway Riders and Travelers Motorcycle Clubs held their toy run in Bergen, New Jersey. The New York Times reported, “A number of residents here were terrified but the worst never came. There were no gang fights…or the assorted other crimes depicted on television.”
Toy drives have been popular in the United States since the 1890s. The Police Athletic League began annual toy drives during the Great Depression and the Marine Corps began its annual Toys For Tots campaign in Los Angeles in 1947. But the idea of motorcycle outlaws, or at least a bunch of guys who looked and thought like outlaws, gathering toys and riding them to a central distribution point was an idea that was clearly overdue. The next year there were motorcycle toy runs all over the United States.
The Way We Were
This was a very different America in December 1973. Nixon, who gave the world the War on Drugs and RICO had just resigned and gone into exile at his estate in San Clemente. Sonny Barger was in exile in a cage in San Quentin. It was only four years after Mick Jagger’s “Christmas and Chanukah Rite for American Youth” at the Altamont Speedway near San Francisco – a well intentioned but half-assed act of holiday charity that wound up being a public relations disaster for every hippie on a Harley.
In 1973, the Hells Angels in particular had become concerned about their club’s image. If the Angels didn’t know what “public relations” meant before Altamont they quickly learned. That year the Angels were at the forefront of something called the “Bikers’ Rights Movement.” After the toy run, the Angels sponsored a holiday blood drive. Seventy-three was probably the year some wag coined the phrase “When I do right nobody remembers, when I do wrong nobody forgets.” A sort of biker political action committee called A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments, or ABATE, was founded in 1973.
Some police had a knee jerk reaction against this new phenomenon of hippie, delinquent, psycho-baby-killer bikers acting like good citizens. The Los Angeles cop who compared the participants in the first toy run to Hitler probably couldn’t help himself.
That original run lasted four years. In its final year it had 5,000 participants and instead of riding to Los Angeles City Hall they all rode the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. It was cancelled on the recommendation of Pasadena Police Chief Robert H. McGowan who called participants “an out-of-town bunch of ruffians who come into the city to cleanse their consciences once a year.” He accused Pasadena of “courting very serious criminal problems if it continues to permit this mob to bring toys to our children.” And as an example of those problems he cited one of the tens of thousands of spectators who held up a large sign near the Rose Bowl that read, “Show me your tits.”
“About one in every four females did just that,” the old cop complained.
The Way We Are
Now virtually every Harley rider in the world rides to give at least once a year. The runs start in late October in the Northern Rockies and they continue through December.
In Los Angeles, the Valley Angels had their run December first and the Mongols made their annual pilgrimage to the Fred Jordan Mission on Skid Row a week later.
The Big Texas Toy Run Motorcycle Parade was last Saturday in Fort Worth, a week after a major snow storm. Eight thousand riders showed up. The event started in 1985 and one of the original participants, Gene Long, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “In the old days, it was 95 percent Harleys. Today there are a lot of three-wheelers, as many as one-fifth of the rides. And there are a lot of women riders.”
The Solo Angeles CM, a club Jay Dobyns took pains to excoriate in his best selling, true crime memoir, sponsored its annual Tijuana Toy Run last weekend, too. A dude named Diablo told the Latin American Herald Tribune, “At times there are no words. You’re giving a child something he’s going to play with, and seeing his happy face is a great satisfaction.”
The same paper reported that a woman named Maria Santos waited in line with her six-year-old son for the bikes to roll in from the border. “It’s a very perfect event,” she said, “and we’re always grateful that they take the time to come and give happiness to my son and other children.”
There were big runs in Tulsa and Little Rock last weekend.
Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe said of the participants he saw, “They’re big-hearted. A lot of them are big barrel-chested, too, but they’re big-hearted, and they really care about kids that don’t otherwise have a chance. It’s pretty neat to see it; I’m grateful to all of them, and I told all of them we appreciate them – all of Arkansas appreciates them,”
Tulsa ABATE sponsored the run there. ABATE now means something less confrontational than it did in ’73. A guy named Larry Angell startled a reporter for the local NBC television station when he rode up with a bicycle strapped to his motorcycle. It will be less startling the thousandth time the reporter sees it. “I always carry a bicycle or a tricycle,” Angell explained. “I always have and not too many places to carry it on here, so I had to get creative.”
Reporters love to cover motorcycle toy runs. They have become a December news staple.
The Way They Still Are
Cops are less thrilled. Most police still dismiss toy runs as a cynical public relations ploy by organized criminal gangs and the ignorant red neck morons who are easily duped by them. An article by outlaw biker gang expert Richard Valdemar two years ago in Police: The Law Enforcement Magazine presents the responsible opposing view.
“The Hells Angels outlaw motorcycle gang goes to great effort to present itself as a motorcycle club rather than a criminal gang,” the biker authority tells his fellow cops. “They employ high-dollar attorneys and public relations fronts to deceive the national media and public into believing that they’re just good old boys who ride motorcycles as a hobby and don’t mean to hurt anyone.”
“Hollywood celebrities such as Hulk Hogan and Sylvester Stallone, as well as people who should know better such as former U.S. Senator from Colorado Ben Nighthorse Campbell, have been photographed riding with the Hells Angels and supporting these public relations campaigns,” Valdemar continues. “Either these people are fools who have been badly deceived, or somehow they benefit from this criminal association with the Hells Angels organization.”
“This is well documented in books such as Hells Angels (sic) by Hunter S. Thompson, Angels of Death by Julian Sher and William Marsden, No Angel by Jay Dobyns, and my favorite title Hells Angels: Three Can Keep a Secret If Two Are Dead by Yves Lavigne.”
Valdemar makes a noteworthy point that everyone reading this should remember. Not only will your participation in the next available toy run make a kid with a tough life smile and also make you feel all warm and gooey. That part’s okay. You do not have to admit this to anyone. But also, for the frosting on the cake, you will also piss off the police. You can tell guys that’s why you do it.
The photo above is from Glenn Moore.