I spent a few hours last Friday morning walking around the back of a motorcycle dealership, looking at guys my age grinning like little boys, and assuming that I was, too.
But what 50-something guy wouldn’t be grinning at the Evel Knievel Museum?
The museum’s grand opening took place just over a year ago in downtown Topeka, where Mike Patterson turned part of his family’s motorcycle dealership facilities into a tribute to his childhood hero.
One of the first things you see as you walk inside is a large Polaroid-style photo of a young Mike doing a wheelie on his bicycle, next to a figure of a boy riding on a similar bike, which is heading up a ramp supported by a garbage can turned on its side.
Like Mike, my friends and I tried to do that, as well — although I am sure my friends did it better and more bravely. While I tried a few small jumps, the result of what was going to be my most epic attempt ended with me swerving away from the makeshift ramp. Whether my decision was based on fear, or common sense, or a combination thereof, I still cannot say for sure.
I did much better with my Evel Knievel toy motorcycle. I am pretty sure that it is one of the best toys ever made in human history. You’d place the cycle on a red wind-up ramp, crank with all your might and as soon as you stopped cranking, the motorcycle would take off. For a while, they advertised the motorcycle with an Evel-themed RV, and I was one of the fortunate few (or many?!) to receive one as a Christmas present. I remember my joy the day that my cycle, just as the one in the commercial, ascended the ramp, did a 360-degree loop and landed safely on the other side — a triumph I would never successfully repeat. My siblings and I went everywhere with our cycles, trying to see how well and how far it would go. Yes, it will actually climb up a telephone pole, for just a few inches. And despite its frequent use in many weather and turf conditions, it lasted a very long time.
I was remembering that toy, and so much more about Evel Knievel, as I walked around the two-story display. That RV is one of the very few Evel-related things from my childhood that I did NOT see in the museum.
Mike Patterson was one of the even luckier little boys who got to see Evel in person, at the Kansas State Fair, when he was 4. More than 40 years later, that memory lived strong enough to inspire him to build a museum.
Patterson started by finding, and restoring, the semi-trailer set-up Evel had used. He and his crew did such a great job of it that one of Evel’s daughters told him at the grand opening that it looked just like she had remembered it when she watched her dad jump.
The original plan was to use that truck as a traveling museum, but Patterson did not want to expose it to the elements and road hazards. So he pulled it into the cycle shop and built the museum around it.
Visitors can watch many of Evel’s most famous jumps, mostly in black and white, somewhat grainy videos. A few of his cars, and cycles, or replicas of them, are also on display, along with actual uniforms. The walls contain hundreds of blown-up copies of newspaper articles about Evel’s fame, his sometimes-troubled life, and his legacy.
One of my favorite displays is a bag of fan mail, with some of the most unique letters still legible.
“Postman, Postman, this is a special delivery, so please make it fast,” wrote one boy.
Another boy addressed a letter to “Evel Knievel, at a hospital in Chicago, Ill.” He also noted in the upper left corner that the letter should be sent via airmail.
Yet another writer, a man from England, wishes him a speedy recovery and thanks him for buying drinks for him and graciously writing a note to his children.
You can see one of the rockets made for the Snake Canyon jump, and many of the uniforms Evel wore. There are posters about the movie and TV shows made about him, and an area that shows a room decked out with many of the Evel Knievel products that filled young boys’ holiday wish lists.
A highlight of the museum (for an extra $5 which I encourage you to spend) is a virtual reality ride, in which the participant sits on a motorcycle and gets to see and feel what it’s like to make a jump. The video for this attraction is from an actual jump made in Kansas recently.
Behind that VR motorcycle is a “Plan your Jump” activity that allows participants to choose their motorcycle (and costume!) as well as ramp angle, and speed. The activity then lets you know if you jumped far enough — but not too far — to safely land on two wheels. As one of those grinning, my-age, tour guides asked me if I landed safely, I made the obvious observation that I had the easy task, and that Evel could only figure out all of those details by trying them on his cycle.
If you’re one of those 50-somethings who remembers loving Evel Knievel as I did, you may be asking, “But wait. I thought Evel was from Butte, Montana. Why is the museum in Topeka?”
And you would be, of course, correct. Butte, Montana is his home town, where he is buried in the Snake Canyon rocket, and where in a couple of weeks the annual Evel Knievel Days events take place.
Patterson said in one interview that it took some convincing before the Knievel family agreed to the Topeka museum. I am glad they ultimately agreed.
See more photos of my visit HERE.