In the spring of 2000 I was a new father supporting my family as an over the road truck driver. On a break from the road my wife and sister helped me arrange a weekend with my brother Arron and we thought “hey, let’s put a canoe in Catt Creek at Route 240 and take a ride to Gowanda”. Sounds great doesn’t it? It would have been if we weren’t complete bone heads who picked the weekend after Memorial Day to do it, because there isn’t enough water that time of year! We did, however, get lucky enough to score the best weather we could have ever hoped for. What could have been better than dragging a canoe over slimy smelly rocks with the sun baking our skin while evaporating the water we planned to canoe in? We should have realized we weren’t Boy Scouts anymore and called it quits when our canoe slipped out of our control, crashing over Arron’s ankle while portaging around the Scoby Dam. If we were smart we would have made our way across the creek to Scoby Dam Park and walked to Springville to call for a ride, but no, we continued. After all, we had a cooler full of foil dinners and adult beverages meant to be enjoyed on this trip. When we finally came to a place where we could actually paddle, we dumped the canoe, losing half of our precious adult beverage cargo and soaking most of our bedding.
The night was long but the next morning was beautiful - another perfect day of hot hot hot sunshine. We walked, slipped, paddled, tripped and stumbled our way through the valley, wondering if maybe we were in the wrong creek … and just then it got weird. Naked people were watching us. We were not watching them, they were watching us and thankfully, the water now had some depth and a current. “Just look straight and paddle!” we both shouted to each other. Where the heck did we go wrong? We were tired, sore and sun baked, with no more beer and naked people on both sides of the creek watching us. We continued safely away from our audience and thankfully never heard banjos, but soon, we heard drums. Naked people and then drums while paddling a canoe. Was this the terrible un-filmed ending of the Blue Lagoon Trilogy? Then suddenly, guitars like the Hallelujah Chorus. Sweet sounding guitars and the rumbling of bikes calling to us from the banks of the creek like sirens on the shore after the odyssey we just experienced. We stopped as we had planned, at the parking lot of Jubilee (now Shop and Save) where I would walk to my wife’s grandmother’s home to get our rendezvous vehicle. I couldn’t believe what was happening in this town … it was a Harley Happening! We had a great thought that we should go into town and check it out, until Grandma Bellanca saw us. If we weren’t feeling like “Cit-iots” by this point, she made sure we knew we were. “Lobsters! You two look like big (stupid) lobsters!” she scolded as she rubbed something on us (much more on Arron than I). She let us know we were in no shape to go anywhere, and nobody deserved to see us either. We couldn’t believe we had just spent a weekend dragging a canoe through (beautiful) Zoar Valley when we could have been hanging out here in Gowanda listening to great music, looking at awesome motorcycles, eating tasty food cooked by someone else on a hot night, taking it all in while washing it down with cold adult beverages.
This was my first experience of what is now called the “Hollywood Happening” and my next experiences came while I was employed by a Western NY soft drink company. Some of the stores in and around Gowanda were my territory. I watched stores stock up on supplies for the weekend with product of mine and other vendors, but could only watch from the red light as I drove from account to account restocking the product that was getting enjoyed by all of those people.
It wasn’t until later that I learned why there was a Harley Happening. There was a beautiful historic theater in Gowanda that was in danger of becoming extinct, and this event was started as a desperate fundraiser to stop that from happening. It worked. The tremendous effort produced meager results that were just enough to gain attention and keep the place alive, and the enthusiasm for the event grew and grew. Unfortunately, the daunting reality of just how much the building needed also grew to a staggering $4.3 million or so.
The event seems to be Western NY’s best kept secret and partly because of its perfect little location. Tucked in behind the main street of small town America, Gowanda’s Hollywood Happening draws between 9,000 and 21,000 people in one weekend, rushing in and out leaving the area cleaner then before it started. There are no large hotels in the town for overnight guests and Gowanda is not a city with a large population to draw from. To see the event grow would mean to move it away from where it is presently held, but would it still be the same? There were a number of discussions about moving the stage and party back to the main street but then there are logistical concerns with the State and the closing of roads that need to be addressed. If the event moved out of town, where would the “Roof Crew” sit? What about the little main street America town that all of these visiting people would not be in if not for the Hollywood Happening? For the last 17 years the event has remained free to enjoy and the cost of beverages has always been in line with or lower than other area “beer tents”. It is amazing how a small group of volunteers and a heartfelt core group of sponsors has been able to maintain an event of this size with these obstacles, even while operating costs go up and donations are harder and harder to come by. Why is it still possible after all of these years? Because of the ride.
The ride into Gowanda is one that is different every time. It is never boring. Traveling to the Hollywood Happening on twisty roads through the countryside builds the anticipation of a great summer ahead, even if it is pouring rain. The union of two counties between two little bridges becomes the place of great reunions of friends and families from all over WNY and often across the country. Is the Hollywood Happening any different than all of those times in the past that I saw the event from the outside looking in? No. Do you remember your first Harley Happening or Hollywood Happening Parade? Do you remember that first Saturday you rolled into the packed Happening Street on what might have been your first bike? Or maybe you watched your best friend roll into town with his wife on the back of his first Harley, a low nasty hard tail trying his best to look badass and not smile with pride. Have you ever just walked around the Hollywood Happening with your kids looking at motorcycles, watching their faces with dreams in their eyes knowing exactly what they are thinking or feeling, remembering how you felt the same thing with your father or mother, uncle or aunt when you were a kid? It isn’t a picture perfect postcard place for this annual ritual of riding the winter away, but that is exactly what makes it easy to enjoy. This is small town Western NY. We make it work. Take a ride to the Happening, take the ride each day to the Happening, join in on a charity ride during the event and enjoy what you have available to you. It’s not much, but it’s ours and I’m glad for it. “Happy Happening!”
This year’s Hollywood Happening will take place June 3-5, 2016. It has grown from a one-day party to one of the most anticipated events in Western NY. This year, Gowanda Harley Davidson is sponsoring 1 Wheel Revolution, a motorcycle stunt show involving H-D bikes right on Center Street, downtown. There will also be high-flying entertainment in the theater with Buffalo Aerial Dance and their special guests Pyromancy. Crowd favorite the Wicked Glenn Tattoo Contest will take place on the Main Stage, and the Hollywood Theater/J.C. Seneca Foundation Charity Ride and Ride-in-Bike Show is sponsored this year by Winder-Snyder Allstate Insurance Agency. GHD will host biker games with “Grott” and the H-D- Demo Fleet. And of course, you can count on beer and bands. There is something for everyone! Both trailer and primitive camping is available, so you can take full advantage of the weekend! To learn more about Gowanda’s Hollywood Happening, including a complete schedule of events and featured performances, go to www.gowandahollywoodhappening.com.