A Bar, a Bull and a Movie

1980s | June 7, 2018

Actor John Travolta and Debra Winger smile on set of the Paramount Pictures movie 'Urban Cowboy' circa 1980. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Movies and sometimes songs can start a craze that sweeps the nation and last for years. This is no different from June 6, 1980 when the mechanical bull riding was brought into the spotlight. The movie Urban Cowboy starring John Travolta and Debra Winger featuring a mechanical bull brought in $53.3 million from theaters nationwide.

The storyline, in case you don’t remember, is about a country boy with big city dreams, Bud Davis who is played by John Travolta, and moves to Pasadena, Texas. When a mechanical bull-riding contest is announced at a local bar called Gilley’s, Bud decides to sign up. Gilley’s is an actual bar named after the co-owner and country singer, Mickey Gilley.

Spoiler alert if you’re one in a million that has not seen the movie yet. As the movie goes, Bud was able to hang on for the full time, eight seconds, and leave with the winnings, a whopping $5,000 prize. Needless to say, his manliness also captured the heart of Sissy, played by Debra Winger.

This movie may have made the bull riding simulator, the mechanical bull popular in bars across the country in the 1980s, however, they’d been around for a long time. The idea of training on a mechanical bull first before jumping in the ring strapped to a live one which can weigh an average of 2,000 pounds or more and quickly put your life in danger, was first built to train young or novice riders. It helped these beginners with aspirations of becoming professional bull riders for rodeo competitions, learn and perfect their skills without running the risk of injury when dealing with the unpredictable nature of a real-life bull.

With its roots in Texas, a professional bull riding group formed and named themselves, The Rodeo Cowboy Association which was created in 1936 and years later in 1975, became known as the PRCA, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

Sherwood Cryer invented a mechanical bull to be used in the movie, but before Urban Cowboy made the mechanical bull famous especially in bars nationally, it actually was already being used as a form of recreation at Bertrand Island Amusement Park in New Jersey as early as the 1930s, called “Ride ‘Em Cowboy”.

But it took the movie, Urban Cowboy, for bars to run with this idea. It was now an added attraction to visit their particular bar and where people would happily hand over the money to try it. There were even special scheduled events and prizes. It made visiting a bar more interactive besides the drinks and live music and dancing, you could now participate, test and show off your bull riding skills.

They had variable speeds and times on the switch box which started the bull bucking and spinning and could go faster and faster as the seconds counted on. Either you were lucky enough to stay on till the buzzer sounded or fell off within seconds, often bruising the egos of many. When the bars had them installed, of course, to avoid injuries of the sometimes-drunken cowboy-to-be, they were surrounded with padded sides and flooring that would provide the individual with a soft landing.

Men try them and so do women. I suppose the men, so they can show off their masculine pride and toughness not only for their peers but also for the women watching them. Women will try them too, usually to test their strength and persistence as well as to show men, like Debra Winger did, that, hey women can do what men do too. A lot of the times, it’s to say, “hey I rode a mechanical bull and lasted the full time without falling off.”

Urban Cowboy: Mechanical Bull at Woodbury Cowboy Jack's from John Travolta Movie

Even though today there are still many bars across the country, from New York to Ohio to Wisconsin to, of course, Texas, that have the mechanical bull riding attraction, many people would now say “Wow, a mechanical bull, that is so '80s!” Women may do it to show off their femininity or strength for the guys watching or if it’s a country boy turned city man or a man with the strong desire to become the next Urban Cowboy, there’s just something about riding the mechanical bull that creates an aura of the Wild West and with it competitive excitement similar to a real rodeo, that can puff up a person’s pride, if only for a little while. Long live the cowboy and cowgirl!

Tags: movies

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Marion Wijnberg


Marion lives in Ohio and has two grown children and one grandson. As well as loving the time she gets to spend with them, she also enjoys rescuing animals. Marion currently has 2 cats and a dog. She also loves to travel, read, play tennis and go horseback riding."