Shortly after WWII, an interesting form of entertainment sprang to the forefront of carnival attraction popularity: the Motordrome, “Wall of Death.” The attraction featured daring cyclists riding various stunts on the walls of a vertical, 16 foot high cylinder, 30 feet across. One Minneapolis print shop owner and longtime motorcycle enthusiast, Marlin Klunder, still operates a traveling motordrome.
Marlin’s enthusiasm for motorcycling began at 9 years old with his first bike, a 1927 Harley-Davidson. Marlin became a Harley dealer on his South Dakota farm near Mitchell until moving to the Twin Cities years later.
Selling Harleys for Belmont’s on West 7th in St. Paul, Marlin became friends with Royal American Shows motordrome operator George Murray. Each year George would bring in his bikes for repair in exchange for allowing Belmont’s to display their newest models on his motordrome stage during the fair.
Although Marlin moved on to the promotion of highly successful motorcycle rallies, swap meets and indoor races at the Armory (where he pioneered the use of Coca Cola syrup on the floor for traction), he always had the motordrome in the back of his mind. Finally, in 1985, after a laborious and costly effort, he bought one. But with no one to ride for him, he had to learn how to do it himself–at age 50.
“When the truck delivered the semi-trailer containing the ‘drome, I opened the doors of the trailer and out fell a pair of crutches. I should have realized…”
He set up the motordrome in his back yard and practiced for two years. Marlin’s learning years resulted in one torn-up ankle and one body-long bruise from the back of his neck to the back of his knees after a fall near the top of the wall. Other than those, his injuries have been slight.
Thirteen years later, Marlin still operates his motordrome a few months a year. “The dizziness goes away fairly quickly,” after being away from it for so many months, he says. Marlin now bills his attraction as a clean, family, thrill show. “The shows used to have a real ‘motorcycle’ feel to them. I put the riders in silk shirts to change that image.”
During his 15-minute shows, Marlin makes a point to explain to his younger crowds the importance of staying off drugs and that motorcycling is about riding for personal enjoyment, not about who you think you should be. “You don’t have to be a jerk to ride a motorcycle,” he states.
Although its popularity has waned since its peak in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Marlin continues to draw substantial crowds. The young people are attracted to the daring and the older ones the nostalgia. Thanks to Marlin, this unique and historical aspect of motorcycling can still be experienced.