Historic Hollister biker bar Johnny's changes hands

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A new owner is taking over Johnny's Bar & Grill in Hollister, but it will still be a biker bar and popular local watering hole.

It’s called “The friendliest little bar in town.”

Johnny’s Bar & Grill at 526 San Benito St. in Hollister is not only a biker bar. It’s a place where locals greet, meet, drink and eat. More notably, Johnny's Bar & Grill is considered a mecca for bikers from around the world and each year thousands who come to Hollister's motorcycle rally stop there, as if on pilgrimage. 

The building with the Marlon Brando and “The Wild One” theme has a 70-year history as a watering hole. And its history is about to change.

On New Year’s Eve owner Charisse Tyson handed over keys to the business to new owner Peter Lago, ending her 22-year proprietorship. The change of ownership occurred at a private party attended by Tyson’s many friends and former employees.

The mural on the outside of Johnny's Bar & Grill in Hollister.
The mural on the outside of Johnny's Bar & Grill in Hollister.

The key handoff was a re-enactment of how Tyson became Johnny’s owner in 1996. She was dancing at the bar with her husband Tom Horsfall that New Year’s Eve when the former owner dropped the keys in her hand.

“I was planning on taking over the next morning,” Tyson said. Instead, they wound up going to work.

Now, at 58, Tyson decided it was time to dedicate her life to her other passions: counseling women about alcoholism as a Christian freedom coach, traveling in her motorhome and finishing her second book, a novel.

Her first book, a self-published memoir titled, “Born Again in a Biker Bar,” recalls her life and times running Johnny’s and, as her book title says, becoming born again.

A champion of the Hollister Fourth of July motorcycle rallies, Tyson took some time over coffee at Johnny’s to recall moments in her career as a biker bar owner. She threw parties for everything, including her husband’s vasectomy. And last year, when the rodeo parade was canceled, she hosted stick horse races through the town.

She got into the bar business early. At 17 she was serving cocktails in San Jose. At 19, she was managing a bar there. Twenty years later she was looking for a bar to buy in Hollister. She considered purchasing The Office bar but decided on Johnny’s instead.

“This was a better fit,” she said. “It was God’s plan as far as I’m concerned."

Johnny’s takes it name from Johnny Strabler, the biker gang leader played by Marlon Brando in the 1953 film “The Wild One.” The film is based on the July 1947 Gypsy Tour Races and a group of rowdy bikers who took over Hollister.

That year Wino Willie and his Boozefighters came for the races. The ruckus has been called “The Hollister Riot.” There was drinking, and a motorcyclist rode his bike through Johnny’s, then owned by Johnny Matalich and formerly known as The New Deal.

The revelers staged drunken races and wheelie and burnout displays in the middle of San Benito Street, ignoring the races at Memorial Park. The five-member Hollister police force was overwhelmed. There were many arrests for public intoxication and disturbing the peace.

The rowdiness was depicted as mayhem in a July 1947 issue of Life Magazine. The cover shot showed a biker drinking a beer on his cycle, with empty beer bottles piled at his feet. It turned out the photo was staged.

The Life article inspired the making of “The Wild One,” and the Boozefighters have continued to return to Hollister on Fourth of July weekend ever since.

“It’s a bucket list destination for bikers,” Tyson said of Johnny’s. “It’s the place they want to come.”

The front of Johnny's Bar & Grill at 526 San Benito St., Hollister. Photo by Tom Leyde
The bar at Johnny's Bar & Grill. Photo by Tom Leyde
Charisse Tyson on the Johnny's Bar Facebook page announcing the sale.
2017 Motorcycle Rally at Johnny's Bar & Grill. Photo by John Chadwell
Full house at Johnny's during the rally. Photo by John Chadwell

An original cover of the 1947 Life magazine hangs framed behind the bar at Johnny’s. There are also black and white photos taken during that wild weekend, along with many shots of biker patrons. Tyson points out shots of local residents, familiar with each of their stories.

“I’ve got pictures of motorcycles parked outside in 1939,” Tyson said.

“The Wild One” was filmed in Hollywood. But Tyson said there is a story that Brando rode his motorcycle to Hollister to see where the events on which the movie is based occurred.

Over the years, Tyson has met many interesting people through Johnny’s. “A lot of people reached out to me because I embraced the bikers’ history,” she said. She has been working on getting the bar listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

She recalled the first Hollister Independence Rally in 1996.

“It was nuts. It was insane,” she said. “Now I’ve got it down to a well oiled machine with seven cash registers.”

The rallies have come and gone, depending on the outlook of the Hollister police chief, Tyson said. It was canceled in 2006, came back in 2007 and canceled again in 2009. It returned in 2013 and has continued annually since then.

Tyson made a trip to Sturgis, South Dakota, the site of the mother of all motorcycle rallies, to investigate why it works so well there. She even helped get the Sturgis police chief to visit Hollister and talk to city officials about the value of motorcycle rallies. She says they bring in money.

When Tyson first bought Johnny’s, her husband worked there as her fix-it man. Tyson said he battled alcoholism, became recovered, and decided being in a bar wasn’t the best place for him.

Tyson had an epiphany about co-dependence and enabling and began helping others with the same issues. She does counseling, hosts seminars and posts daily scriptures and love notes to the Lord online.

Of her new endeavors, she said, “It’s quite the opposite from running a bar. The Lord works in mysterious ways. … My new deal will be just as blessed, except it will be for the kingdom instead of the other.”

Tyson met Peter Lago, of Maui, through her brother. She pictured him as a general manager of Johnny’s but decided it was time for her to move on, even though the change is bittersweet.

Don’t expect Johnny’s to change much. It will continue to welcome locals and bikers and keep the historic photos and many pieces of memorabilia, including the ashes of a former patron. Lago, Tyson said, is planning to keep the same crew to run the business.

“He’s going to make things better,” she said. “It needed new blood.”

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Thomas Leyde
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