DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A half a century ago, a daredevil from Butte, Mont., rocketed into national prominence on a motorbike. Frank Morris of member station KCUR tells us about a new museum celebrating all that is Evel - Evel Knievel, that is.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Robert Knievel was an ornery, reckless kid always in trouble with the law. He started jumping motorcycles over stuff like mountain lions, boxes of rattlesnakes and then trucks. By his late 20s, he'd hustled his way into the national spotlight.
BRAD ZIMMERMAN: Evel Knievel was an original. And to a lot of people, young people, he was a super hero.
MORRIS: As Brad Zimmerman, who runs that just opened Evil Knievel Museum in Topeka, Kan., points out, Evel dressed the part. With his flamboyant red, white and blue leather jumpsuits, helmets and capes, Evel was part Elvis, part Liberace, part John Wayne.
ZIMMERMAN: True daredevil - seat of the pants, not much science, just I can do this, so I'm going to do it. If you look at most of his motorcycles, they did not have speedometers on them.
MORRIS: Yeah, no speedometers, no special shocks, just instinct guiding heavy race bikes flying off wooden ramps.
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MORRIS: Even a virtual reality jump at the museum is enough to shake up some visitors.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That's hilarious.
MORRIS: In real life, Knievel crashed and crashed and crashed and got up for more, attracting fans bands like Rodney Brown.
RODNEY BROWN: It's just amazing he survived all the crashes and all the bones broken. And just - he didn't care. He just did what he wanted to do. And he lived his life, and that's the way it was.
MORRIS: Knievel's chutzpah, tenacity, and flair vaulted him to national stardom. Zimmerman says he made millions just licensing his name.
ZIMMERMAN: Along this wall then, we have a display of the licensed products that Evel had. I mean, he had everything from barbecue sauce to motor oil to toys to a pinball machines, slot machines.
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UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: This is Evel Knievel and the Evel Knievel Shock-Absorbing Stunt Cycle.
ZIMMERMAN: You name it; they were putting Evel's name on it.
MORRIS: And around the corner, in a freestanding showcase worthy of crowned jewels, rests a savagely battered old motorcycle helmet. It's from Evel Knievel's most famous and spectacular crash, where he landed head-first and tumbled 60 feet.
ZIMMERMAN: That is the Caesar's Palace helmet in the top, so that's a pretty famous piece. Everybody has seen that video, and there's the original helmet.
MIKE PATTERSON: The crashes are what made him famous.
MORRIS: Mike Patterson, who owns a Harley-Davidson shop in Topeka, is bankrolling the museum, showcasing stuff collected mostly by Lathan McKay. Seeing Knievel jump at the Kansas State Fair is Patterson's earliest childhood memory.
PATTERSON: I remember just hoping he would go, waiting for him to go - sitting there on the edge of my seat, you know, until he finally went.
MORRIS: Heroic as he seemed, Knievel's heavy drinking, gambling and surly disposition weighed him down. When he was jailed for beating his former publicist with a baseball bat, the Evel empire collapsed.
PATTERSON: When it flamed out, it flamed out pretty fast. And I think that's why, too, there probably wasn't an Evel Knievel Museum before now.
MORRIS: Knievel died a decade ago, of lung disease, but not before inspiring a huge industry around extreme sports and a generation of risk-takers. Museum director Zimmerman says it's time to celebrate what he calls the positives of Evel.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.
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