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.
Saddle sore: Busting ass on a mechanical bull
by Summer Burkes, 07.21.98
OKAY FILM CLASS, let’s review: in the movie Urban Cowboy, the mechanical bull as an icon symbolized what?
A) Humankind’s insistence that the forces of nature can be overpowered.
B) Bud’s intrinsic Alpha-male need to feel superiority over his peers.
C) The struggle for dominance in relationships, as evinced by Sissy’s covert riding lessons and Buck’s subsequent outrage and machismo-inspired broken arm.
D) The probability that John Travolta, Debra Winger, and that fine blond guy with the scar on his face, all more than capable of riding the mechanical beast, are pretty good in bed.
E) All of the above.
To this day, that movie is still probably more responsible than anything for keeping El Toro Manufacturing Company in business. Eddie Billingham and Cliff Cryer, two genial, no-nonsense representatives from El Toro, brought the venerable ’80s young-country-revival mascot to town for a few days this past week during Slim’s Rock and Roll Rodeo.
As bands played and beer flowed, for three bucks a pop, us city kids were given the rare chance to be fake rodeo stars for about 20 to 45 seconds at a time. To get a leg up on the rest of my pseudo-macho friends in our ongoing “Half-Assed Ernest Hemingway” competition, I went in for a quick lesson with the El Toro boys before the show.
After a formal introduction and some traditional Texas small talk, Eddie Billingham patiently explained the workings of the bull, outlining a bit of history (it was invented about 20 years ago to train rodeo riders) and its options (it goes to 10, but since it wasn’t bolted to the floor at Slim’s, he’d only take it to 8 to prevent it from bucking out of place).
He’s been a bull operator for 17 years and has only hurt two people (only slightly), both because they were drunk and stupid. He knows what he’s doing.
Eddie told me that, for safety’s sake, we would begin at a speed of 3 and work upwards. We moon-walked over the enormous air pillow that surrounds the bull to the contraption itself, which is basically a motorized rawhide rectangle on a stand with a handle on top. He boosted me up onto the bull (“I only do that for the ladies,” he said) and instructed me to perch with certain parts of my anatomy so close to the handle that I had second thoughts about the whole venture. (For a millisecond, anyways.)
“Hold on tight with your knees,” he said. “Put one hand up in the air, and hold on with the other. When it goes down, you lean back; and when it goes up, you lean forward.” Simple enough.
Cliff stepped up to the little box with knobs on it that drives the bull and turned it on. The bull spun as it bucked, and I rocked back and forth and held on for dear life. I didn’t fall, although I was completely (gleefully) disoriented.
The adrenaline rush alone made me shake, and when I tried to walk, I couldn’t really feel my thighs. (It’s even more unintentionally pornographic to ride than it is to watch.) “Can I go again?”
The mechanical bull, contrary to what the scarface in Urban Cowboy tried to fool us into believing, is much like pool, darts, Foosball, and other bar sports in that an increase in alcohol consumption does little to seriously endanger one’s life. The bouncy air mattress cushions any blow, and the technicians usually stop the machine if they see that you’re flailing.
It’s probably a good thing since, after a successful ride, I dismounted and made way for a tipsy male acquaintance of mine who was up next.
“Let me show you how it’s done,” he said, Bud-style, before jumping to mount the bull, misjudging, and sailing clear on over the other side.
He remounted, the bull started to rumble, and he was immediately thrown. Instant karma.
As the bar started to fill up, people tentatively circled the beast, not willing to ride unless one of their friends rode first. A friend and I took turns advancing in notches from 3 to 7 — the speeds increase gradually until 5, when they then double the difficulty of each preceding notch.
The record for a Slim’s run was rumored to be 8 seconds on 8, and my friend bravely tried to beat it. The machine bucked maybe three or four times before she started to slide sideways and Cliff mercifully turned it off.
“Don’t do 8,” she said, rolling off the air mattress onto the floor. “Ow.”
As the night went on and the crowd got collectively drunker, more people rode, more people fell off, and the ride lengths became shorter. (Those nice Texas boys didn’t want anyone to get hurt.)
By the time the last band walked offstage, most everybody in the bar sported the slow and bowlegged gait of a cowboy. After nine runs, my legs were covered in bruises, and it hurt to walk. I called it quits and went home.
I contemplated moving to San Jose to be near the Saddlerack, a bar with a mechanical bull installed permanently. For a millisecond, anyways.
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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