Luckily in 1998, shortly after viewing Urban Cowboy for the first time, I was invited as part of my job at the paper to learn how to ride a mechanical bull. Needless to say I jumped on it and, with the guidance of the bull’s two tenders, rode it like fire.
Now that there’s the Internet, it’s easy to find out the drama behind the scenes of the mechanical bull phenomenon as it unfolded in tandem with Urban Cowboy’s popularity in the late ’70s.
In 1980 Gilley’s sued a few different companies for rights to the whole mechanical bull thing. “The popularity of the bulls — generated in part by ‘Urban Cowboy’ — led to a rapid sales growth. Gilley’s officials said they had made $1 million in less than two years from the sale of 400 bulls.”
“The three companies contend Gilley’s has no right to the patent and is trying to monopolize the mechanical bull market in violation of federal anti-trust laws.”
This report from the Houston Chronicle in 2002 has more on the guys behind the bull:
In 1976, to the annoyance of his business partner at the time, Mickey Gilley, Cryer installed a mechanical bull in the Gilley’s nightclub. He wanted to offer patrons a little diversion. He purchased the bull from Joe Turner, a New Mexico man who made the bulls to train “real cowboys” for rodeos.
The bull was one of many attractions — such as pool tables, pinball machines and a knockout punching bag — that the honky-tonk’s rough-and-tumble urban cowboys could play with as the live music of Gilley or Willie Nelson and Johnny Lee played in the background.
Cryer said the bull in the movie was especially equipped for John Travolta, “who never really rode it that fast.” It was the notorious “Gilleyrat,” and real urban cowboy, Gator Conley, who would put the bull’s three-horsepower motor to the ultimate test.
A “Gilleyrat” was anyone who was a frequent visitor to the club.
“There were not many of them like Gator. He taught Travolta how to dance and how to ride a bull,” Cryer said.
Bob Claypool wrote in his 1980 book, Saturday Night At Gilley’s, that Conley was the last person to ride the original bull before it collapsed in mechanical death late one night in the early 1980s. Cryer still has the bull stored away.
Cryer has never been apologetic about the fact he is rough around the edges. Much like the way he ran Gilley’s nightclub in the 1970s and ’80s, Cryer still keeps his old sawed off, pump action shotgun in his office at G’s Ice House — just in case he has to ward off any would-be robbers.
He said El Toro Manufacturing Co. and G’s Ice House are all he has left of his once-sprawling business empire that included Gilley’s, a recording studio, vending company and many more real estate properties.
“We make a little money on it. I gotta make money somehow. Mickey Gilley took everything I had,” said Cryer, referring to a 1988 judge’s ruling that Cryer should pay Gilley $17 million for hiding profits the two were supposed to share in a long-standing, 50-50 partnership agreement.
Gilley also received the club, naming rights and licensing for the Gilley’s trademark, as well as a number of properties in Pasadena and Nashville, Tenn., but Cryer got to keep El Toro Manufacturing Co. Gilley still visits the Pasadena area, but he spends most of his time entertaining at his own theater in Branson, Mo.
A judge ordered Gilley’s nightclub closed in 1989 and it burned in a mysterious fire in 1990. The Pasadena Independent School District foreclosed on the property, which is now more than $1.7 million delinquent in property taxes.
All good fads must come to an end? Never. From a cursory search it appears there are more mechanical bulls in circulation today than there ever have been before. Turns out you can’t put a patent on a fancy bouncing box. And if you’ve got some rope, a barrel, a big tree or two, and four friends, you’ve got something to do.
Most importantly? Blog Howdyadewit has a post on making your own 55-gallon drum practice bull.
This is the 18th entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).
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