HELL'S ANGELS descend upon Branson _ amusing tourists, worrying law enforcement

Saturday, July 28th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BRANSON, Mo. (AP) _ The Hell's Angels rumbled into town for their annual gathering this week, prompting authorities to bolster their presence in a town whose wholesome entertainment doesn't necessarily mix with black leather and Harley-Davidsons.

Don ``Ding'' Gannon admits he and his fellow rebel bikers appear out of place in Branson, where the average tourist is 55 years old and kitschy music is king.

``We're out to prove them wrong,'' Gannon said Friday as he and his wife prepared to take a motorcycle ride through Branson's busy entertainment district. ``What's more American than riding a motorcycle and being a part of the Hell's Angels?''

The Missouri State Highway Patrol sent 80 troopers to assist local law enforcement until the bikers leave Saturday or Sunday. There was one officer on the streets for every 10 bikers at any given time.

``They're our paparazzi,'' said Gannon, who is president of the Angels' Chicago chapter. ``If you want to be safe, just stick with us because there's always a cop close by.''

By midday Friday, officers had given out only a handful of tickets _ most of them for speeding, driving on the shoulder and improper registration.

Some merchants, who say tourists and profits have fallen off in the past two years, want the bikers to attend shows, play miniature golf, shop and eat in the town's many restaurants.

``They're just a bunch of men who are now over 50 and are yuppies, wishing they were still hippies,'' said Kris Arneson, who arrived from Dallas with her husband to search for a retirement condominium.

Although the Hell's Angels have mellowed since their heyday in the 1960s and '70s, they have had run-ins with the law in recent years.

New Hampshire State Police sent the Branson Police Department photos of Hells Angels walloping police there. In 1997, the Hell's Angels and Laconia, N.H., police tangled with batons and pepper spray, with police getting the worst of it.

``We've taken some criticism from the media and others, but let someone stub their toe and everyone will be asking, 'Where were you?' and 'Why weren't you there?' '' said Sgt. Terry Moore, a Missouri patrol spokesman.

Branson may seem like an odd choice for a gathering of rebel bikers, but Gannon said geography is the main reason for meeting in Branson.

``We have a lot of brothers coming from both coasts, and this is a pretty central location,'' said Gannon, who conceded that it has been tricky to find music that pleases a membership that ranges in age from 20 to senior citizens.

The three large hotels at the crest of Expressway Drive, about five miles north of downtown, were nearly empty before the Angels arrived on Wednesday. Two were filled Friday with bikers and the other with patrol troopers.

The Expressway Inn was glad to see the bikers arrive _ regardless of their attire or mode of transportation. Below the red neon ``No Vacancy'' sign was the message: ``Branson Welcomes Hell's Angels USA Run 2001''

``They've been no trouble at all,'' said Betty Tillman, guest services attendant at the motel. ``In fact, they've been extra nice.''

Tourists strolling down Branson's main strip Friday didn't seem to mind sharing their vacation spot with the Hell's Angels.

``They don't bother me,'' Patty Fisher said as she checked out the leather purses hanging outside a shop. ``I'm jealous. I wish I had a Harley.''