I have a confession to make for the new year: I’m all but addicted to truTV’s reality series Full Throttle Saloon. Go ahead, laugh if you must, but there are elements about this show that make it remarkably fun to watch — if you possess certain characteristics. Like riding a motorcycle, or at least find fun or merit in the biker attitude. It helps if you don’t blanch at the sound of curse words or the sight of nearly naked female flesh. Oh, and you can’t take life too seriously, or watching a multi-million dollar business bumble through ten days and nights of near collapse will fray anyone’s nerves to the bone. You see, the whole premise behind Full Throttle rests on the fact that this, billed as “the world’s largest biker bar”, is only open ten days a year. Yep, just ten, to coincide with the the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally held in the Black Hills of South Dakota each year (see my previous blog here).
The man at the helm of this whirlwind is Michael Ballard from Trimble, Tennessee. In 1999, the 47-year old sold his mobile phone business, Cellular Plus, and bought the thirty acre lot and began construction on what now houses the sprawling FTS complex. There are countless bars, food counters, indoor and outdoor stages, burnout pit, zip lines, tattoo parlor (line up early for free FTS tattoos), 200 cabins, and new this year - a steel death dome! It’s a huge undertaking and logistical nightmare that plays host to over 15,000 patrons each day of the rally. To watch it on television, and see how things are managed by a ragtag staff looks like a giant mess, quite frankly. This is entertainment on one hand as we watch beautiful women and drunk guys thrown together, but it is also a stress test of sorts. It’s infuriating to watch the first episode of this fourth season to once again find there are literally hours before opening night of the rally and a ridiculous amount of work has yet to even start! Why wouldn’t an advance team come out weeks before the the event to assess damage and begin even basic cleanup? There are major bands booked to play the main stage in a matter of days, and their dressing rooms haven’t been swept since last year’s closing. The main t-shirt/merchandise tent appears to be an afterthought and tens of thousands of items remain in sealed boxes. Aaargh!
Still, there is enough in the personalities here to hold our interest. Ballard’s a bit blah, despite dreadlocks, but his girlfriend, Angie Carlson is a spitfire! (After this season’s tapings the two were wed, so I should amend and refer to her as Michael’s wife, but I much prefer the idea that they are not forever attached.) Angie plays a large role is=n running the saloon, from training of the 100+ female bartenders to performing on various stages. She originally made a name for herself at AngieLand, where men (and even some women) excitedly have their photos taken with Miss Carlson’s (Mrs. Ballard, damn!) shapely buns seated on their head. Yes, you read that correctly. She has a good business head, or so it seems, and a real stage presence, so it’s not surprising that Angie and friends put together a sexy dance troupe called Flaunt, that has essentially been sponsored by FTS and had aspirations of expanding into something of a Pussycat Dolls alternative. However, this season’s first episode had Angie leaving Flaunt for a new venture…
Then there is Jesse James Dupree, lead singer of rock band Jackyl, Ballard’s friend and business partner, and often comic foe to Angie’s foil. He’s all southern swagger, a real-deal rocker with big ideas, big mouth, and bigger heart. Much of each season leads up to Jackyl’s performance every Thursday night of rally, and how Jesse will top the previous year’s death-defying stunt. (Last year he plunged off a 100-foot bridge, the year before shot out of a cannon).
All of this makes for some entertaining tv, with drunken brawls, sexy girls, very cool custom bikes, performances from classic rockers like Brett Michaels and Molly Hatchet, but from a business perspective we are left wondering if Ballard will survive to open again next year. And that, from truTV’s perspective, is exactly what drives ratings. I think it’s misguided, though. There is enough real talent and attitude here to make a first class show about a high-end venue catering to a bizarre crowd at the world’s largest motorcycle rally. Drama will find the cameras, especially given Jesse’s sharp wit, Angie’s smile and curves, and Michael’s, umm, well, what does Michael do, anyway? — Mark Mormar