Harley-Davidson Museum

The new exhibit at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee kicks off today (June 15): “Daredevils: A Century of Spine-Tingling Spectacles.

And tomorrow (Father’s Day, June 16) dads get in for free.

“What began with horse trick riders in circuses inspired new generations of entertainers on bicycles, motorcycles, cars – even flying sofa chairs,” the museum tells us.

This exhibit celebrates the history of these death-defying entertainers who spend coutless hours perfecting their exploits.

Performers featured include:

  • The Urias Family Globe of Death, which was first constructed in 1912 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Four generations of the Urias family thrilled audiences the world over with their gravity-defying performances within the globe before it was retired in 2009;
  • The Harley-Davidson XR-750 ridden by Evel Knievel, during his famed 1975 Wembley Stadium jump. (On loan from Evel Knievel Museum);
  • A rocket-powered, custom-built motorcycle (aka The Space Cycle) that was designed to jump Niagara Falls and was outfitted with helicopter blades to aid in its flight;
  • And the living room furniture piece that was employed by the creative (some might say mad) geniuses at Nitro Circus to attempt the world’s first “reclining sofa chair jump.”

“Daredevils” opens Saturday, June 15 and runs through Sunday, Sept. 8.

Museum exhibits celebrate the classic road trip

Interstate highways and the demise of Main Street America have turned many modern-day road trips into boring long hauls from here to there.

Brooks Stevens Housecar_bw

A Streamlined House Car designed by the Brooks Stevens firm of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, circa 1936. From a Private Collection / Courtesy Harley-Davidson Museum

Those yearning for the good old days — ones that may have included station wagons and stops at roadside attractions — might want to motor on over to two new museum exhibits celebrating the rise of car culture and the transformation of the family vacation into an American ritual.

On Saturday, the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, rolled out “The American Road,” an exhibit that uses hundreds of artifacts and many personal stories to examine the evolution of the quintessential American road trip from its early beginnings in the 1930s to what it has come to represent in our culture today.

“The 1930s was the decade when you had a lot of infrastructure coming into place, including improved roads, full-service gas stations, early auto courts and other services, so we start there,” said Kristen Jones, manager of exhibits and curatorial at the Harley-Davidson Museum.

In the early 1930s, there were about 160,000 travel trailers on the road, Jones said, so on display in the exhibit’s first gallery is a 26-foot house car designed by American industrial designer (and Milwaukee native) Brooks Stevens. “It’s built on a truck chassis and has many of the comforts of home, including a galley kitchen, a bed, a dinette and a bathroom,” said Jones. A 4-foot salesman’s model of a mid-1930s trailer is also on display, complete with a hinged top that opens to display details such as an upholstered couch and a tiny fake plant.

The 1950s and ’60s were the “Golden Era” of the American road trip, Jones said, when many people had more vacation time, and more disposable income, to travel. “During this time you went west not in a covered wagon, but in your station wagon, and from this post-World War II era of travel we have everything from a 1962 Ford Country Squire station wagon with wood paneling to neon signs that became important beacons to entice travelers to pull off the highway and into the lots of motels, eateries and other attractions and businesses,” she said.

For years, a classic American road trip was along Route 66, the highway that originally ran from Chicago to Los Angeles and now ends in Santa Monica, California. The highway and its history is the focus of “Route 66: The Road and the Romance,” an exhibition that opened on June 8 at the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles celebrating the decommissioned highway as both a road and a romantic notion.

“There are several Route 66 museums actually on the highway that look at the road’s history in that state or region, but we take a national view and look at factors that led to its creation and how it became a fixture in popular culture,” said Jeffrey Richardson, the Autry’s Gamble curator of western history, popular culture and firearms.

Among the 250 objects on display at the Autry are the oldest existing Route 66 shield, a handwritten page from John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” manuscript that introduces the term “Mother Road,” (one of the many nicknames for Route 66), a classic 1960 Corvette and the original 120-foot-long typewritten scroll of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

Autry_JackKerouac On the Road Scroll

Jack Kerouac’s original On the Road manuscript, written in scroll form.

If you go:

The American Road” at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, runs through Sept. 1 and includes special meals in the restaurant and special road-trip themed events.

Route 66: The Road and the Romance” will be at the Autry National Center of the American West through Jan. 4, 2015, and also includes seminars, tours, family activities, films and more.

(My story about museum exhibits celebrating road trips first appeared on NBC News Travel)

Museum Monday: Celebrating the black leather jacket

This black leather jacket that Elvis Presley bought from J.C. Penney is one of more than 50 classic black leather jackets on display at the Harley-Davidson Museum. Photo courtesy of the museum.

Today it’s an icon in pop culture and fashion, but the black leather jacket was originally a utilitarian piece of clothing designed to protect travelers.

“In the early part of the 20th century, whether you were flying a plane or driving a motorcycle or a horseless carriage, everything had an open cockpit. So the idea of leather being an appropriate material for transportation gear emerged early on,” said Jim Fricke, curatorial director at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wis.

Early airplane pilot in black leather jacket. Courtesy Library of Congress

The museum’s newest exhibit is “Worn to be Wild: The Black Leather Jacket,” which runs through Sept. 3. More than 100 artifacts are on display, including dozens of jackets worn by celebrities and pop culture icons as well as leather jackets from fashion houses such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Gianni Versace. The exhibit also uses a wide variety of motorcycles, photographs, film footage, literature, advertisements and music to explore how this single article of clothing became such an iconic object in popular culture.

During World War I and II, pilots were photographed looking dashing in their leather bomber jackets, but the public’s fascination with the zippered, wind-protecting garment soared in the 1950s, when Hollywood got hold of it.

“It happened because of the movie ‘The Wild One,’ when Marlon Brando played a motorcycle gang member and wore one of our black leather jackets,” said Jason Schott, COO of Schott Bros. clothing manufacturer and great-grandson of Irving Schott, who is credited with making the first zippered leather motorcycle jacket in 1928.

Brando’s bad-boy image seemed cool, so people wanted that jacket. But because the jacket was associated with hoodlums and juvenile delinquency, many schools tried to ban it.

At the time, leather jackets were considered one way to identify juvenile delinquents, said Fricke, who included memos from an Ohio school district in the new exhibit.

“That made people want it even more,” said Schott. “The jacket just became synonymous with the rugged bravado that Americans seemed to embody.”

Despite a lull during the hippie era in the 1960s, Fricke said, the black leather jacket has maintained its role as the uniform of youthful rebellion and has been seen on everyone from James Dean and Elvis Presley to the Ramones and Bruce Springsteen.

A leather outfit worn by Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator 2” and leather jackets worn by musicians and celebrities such as Fergie, Gene Vincent and Michael Jackson are among items on display. The exhibit also reunites the Harley Davidson motorcycle bought by a 21-year-old Elvis Presley in 1956 with the motorcycle jacket he bought a few years later, from J.C. Penney.

After leaving Milwaukee, “Worn to be Wild” will move to Seattle’s EMP Museum, home of some of the music and science-fiction artifacts included in the show, and will run from October 2012 through February 2013.

If you’re flying to Milwaukee, you’ll arrive at Milwaukee County’s General Mitchell International Airport, which provides free parking for motorcycles and a Harley Davidson shop. Here’s a link to the airport guide for General Mitchell International Airport that is part the 50 airport guides I maintain for USATODAY.com.

My story: Worn to be Wild: Celebrating the black leather jacket first appeared on msnbc.com’s Overhead Bin.

Free parking for motorcycles at Milwaukee’s airport


Heading to Milwaukee this weekend for the grand opening of the 20-acre downtown Harley-Davidson Museum or planning to be there later this summer (August 28-31) for the Harley-Davidson 105th Anniversary Celebration?

Keep an eye out for the 1956 Harley-Davidson model Kh that belonged to Elvis Presley. And check out the 13-foot customized motorcycle known as the “King Kong.”

And don’t forget: there’s always free parking for motorcycles at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport.

And if you can’t make it to Milwaukee this summer – or don’t even have a motorcycle – here’s one you can cut-out and and make at home.