Evil Cheesey: One of Boulder’s most colorful and notorious citizens
Terry Chesebro is not exactly a hero.
But he is a legend.
He sits in a room in a locked behavioral psychiatric unit, while the remaining fragments of his memory crumble into hollow blackness. With the few remaining cognitive slivers, he plans his escape.
He must ride again.
A man languidly limps through the back alleys of the Pearl Street Mall, 86’ed from every bar on the stretch. A frizzy graying beard conceals lips, almost smirking, above bushy eyebrows, playfully expressive; his eyes are permanently shaped like defiance. One look, and the fire in his pupils seems to recite his lengthy police record, unapologetically. The lines on his face, like a map of his wild youth, have aged the late-50-something man by several decades.
Inside the Lazy Dog Sports Bar & Grill, then-bartender Jack Hanley sees the man.
What catches the bartender’s eye is not how this stranger looks, considering the brick-lined Boulder walking mall is colored with quirky characters, buskers and hippies.
What’s strange is how people act when the man walks past. It’s like a one-man parade. Day after day.
Cars stop and honk. Bodies pop out of doorways and wave. People raise their glasses, they clap, they cheer, they whistle. “Evil Cheesey!” they shout. It seems everyone in the city older than 35 knows this man, this surprising celebrity.
Hanley wants to know him, too.
One day, when the bar is quiet, Hanley, against the rules, invites the man inside.
Meeting Terry Chesebro changes the course of Hanley’s career path.
Hanley, also a writer and filmmaker, uncovers a slice of Boulder’s history too juicy not to preserve. Together with visual artist and filmmaker Chris Leising, Hanley will spend the next five years collecting layer by layer of this story, while their very subject simultaneously loses his layer by layer of memory.
Their documentary, “Evil Cheesey Rides Again,” becomes a race against dementia — hurdle by hurdle, Evil Cheesey’s final stunt in Boulder, sealing his unusual legacy.
‘Bastion of rebellion and freedom’
In the beginning, in the mid-’70s, the stunts always started with alcohol, and they were rarely planned.
Late at night, Chesebro would be drinking in a bar with his friends. And then suddenly, he’d be on his motorcycle in the middle of a street doing some crazy jump.
Trash cans soon became a string of cars. His friends became an audience of thousands. He traded the dark streets for an afternoon in a field, so he could make his landing in a lake.
“These mostly inebriated stunts usually included a quick shutting down of a main section of Pearl Street and surrounding streets at night, setting up oil drums or cars, throwing out a makeshift ramp and performing a jump to the thousands of local Boulderites that were pouring out of local watering holes to cheer him on,” explains the documentary’s website.
By the time police arrived, Chesebro would be tucked back in some bar, while fans stalled the police to help him get away. Sometimes. stalling techniques included topless female fans.
“There was a crazy anti-establishment sentiment in the air, and he was almost this bastion of rebellion and freedom,” Leising says, describing Boulder in the ’70s. “There was a lot of craziness, and he was riding that wave. That’s why police saw it ever more increasingly dangerous — just for his willingness to take on the police and defy authority.”
Regularly, Chesebro’s friends said they’d be drinking at a bar when he would turn to them and announce he was going to mess with the police. Within minutes, they’d hear his motorcycle revving, followed by the scream of police sirens.
Fans gifted Chesebro a white leisure suit. Someone sewed him a red cape, embroidered with his new nickname: “Evil Cheesey” — Boulder’s own Evel Knievel.
But Chesebro was no copycat. As the story goes, he once met the famed Evel Knievel and got the daredevil’s blessing, before Chesebro went on to become possibly the nation’s second-most famous motorcycle stunt jumper. National media took note, and tales of his dangerous ventures hit the wires.
In Boulder, Evil Cheesey became a household name, and his tales grew taller over the years.
Once, on a dare, Chesebro hauled a couch to the roof of a liquor store and lived there for a week, doing tricks.
Once, he drove his motorcycle up a police car and burned out on its hood.
He goosed the mayor’s daughter from his bike. He peeped into windows, according to police records.
He picked a drunken fight at a dive bar in Kansas with a then-little-known band named Kansas during an early debut of “Dust in the Wind,” causing the band to pack up and leave.
Once, while on his bike at a stoplight, he challenged a police car to a race and led the officers on a chase over grassy hills.
Children too young to attend the late-night illegal street jumps tied blankets around their shoulders and pretended to be Evil Cheesey, jumping their bicycles over toys.
Limp adds to mystique
Chesebro’s limp was an injury from a bad landing. His limp was from narrowly escaping a crash. His limp was from a police gunshot. He was born with a clubfoot. Reality blurs with mythology.
“Everyone has a different reason why he has that limp,” Hanley says.
When you reach a certain legendary status, the truth becomes more diluted, Hanley says.
“It’s astonishing how much other people are in charge of your legacy and how stories get passed around,” he says.
He has some proof of some of the legend, though: news articles, a pile of arrest reports, 35mm negatives, still images and old 18mm film and VHS footage. He needs more. He knows there are other puzzle pieces floating around, buried in attics and closets throughout Boulder County.
Not even Evil Cheesey’s daughter. April Mitchell, knows the full story.
She never saw him jump; she was too young.
“He did talk about it here or there,” says Mitchell, now 32, of Boulder. “When I was a teenager, I hung out in the bars with him and heard a few stories.”
Karaoke in the bars, munching on a bucket of popcorn at a side table, never allowed at the counter — “That was our quality time,” she laughs.
Then, as sneakily as the fuss all started, Evil Cheesey suddenly vanished from the streets of Boulder and melted into urban legend.
Few people know what happened next.
At the height of his fame in the late ’70s, Chesebro walked away.
Some people say his disappearance followed a police arrest and unofficial urge to “get out of town.” Mitchell says he had to stop because his body couldn’t take the injuries anymore. Hanley and Leising say their interviews indicated a new “Boulder elite” pressured him to leave.
“There was a massive influx of people who came to Boulder, a lot from California and New York, who set up shop. Entrepreneurs,” Hanley says. “They had this idea of creating Boulder as this city on the hill, pristine and amazing. There was a lot of money and power with the influx.”
And, as Leising puts it, this “guy without a shirt on, with long hair with a Budweiser, while topless women paraded him on Pearl Street, was totally not the ideal that Pearl Street businesses were looking for.”
Old Boulder — the hippies, the blue-collar workers, the farmers — idolized Evil Cheesey as this “mythical creature, a symbol of the old crew,” Leising says.
“He was like the last cowboy of the old Western frontier, as civilization comes to town,” Leising says. “That wandering guy who no longer has a space and time, and he sticks out and that makes him dangerous to people who no longer want to live in that past.”
In a way, Leising says, Evil Cheesey’s exile represented the transition between Old Boulder and New Boulder. And New Boulder won.
Locals say Evil Cheesey could have been huge. Some of his stunts surpassed the daredevil acts of Evel Knievel, Hanley says, and his dramatic water landings were a unique trademark.
“But he was constantly poor and in debt, all self-imposed,” Hanley says. “Every time he’d get money from a jump, he’d immediately take it to the nearest bar and buy drinks for everyone.”
It was almost as if he chose a life of turmoil, the filmmakers say.
When Chesebro left Boulder, he got married and had children, but the domestic lifestyle was not for him, his daughter says. He soon got divorced and moved back to Boulder to live with his father, a prominent plumber in town.
Back home, Chesebro continued to find new ways to challenge authority.
“His only avenue to fame was shut off by the police, and then he devoted himself to this self-imposed exile, where he engaged in any possible act of rebellion against the police,” Hanley says. “Even if it wasn’t on a bike, he found some way to get arrested.”
He helped himself to food and drink from the grocery store without paying. Threw olives from the salad bar onto the floor while staring a security guard straight in the eyes, Hanley says. Public intoxication. Vandalism.
Printouts of his arrests are several inches thick. He “touched and handled” a rotisserie chicken at a Safeway and, when asked to leave, stuck his fingers inside it, according to a police report. He stole a handful of Hershey’s Kisses from the hospital cafeteria, according to another arrest report.
Police wrote that when Chesebro was told he would be arrested, he would simply respond, “No.” Or he would agree verbally but then refuse to get into the police car. Some of the gems from police reports:
“He would not sit in the police car when asked more than 20 times. I had to push on his stomach area to get him to bend over to sit down in the car.”
“Mr. Chesebro’s normal behavior is to just ignore others.”
“I asked the suspect to leave for about 10 minutes and each time he would say, ‘OK,’ but continued to just eat” (a donut he had not paid for).
“When I asked Chesebro to get into my patrol car, he said ‘OK’ and ‘All right’ several times, but did not move.”
Mitchell remembers that her father would get arrested, go to jail for 15 days, get out, steal again, repeat.
“He’s definitely a rebel,” she says. “But he has a huge heart of gold. He’s also a very caring, loving man. It’s hard not to instantly feel happy when he smiles.”
It wasn’t just his illegal jumps that earned him notoriety, she says. And Hanley agrees.
“He was likable. People helped him out,” Hanley says. “But he always found a way to make a terrible choice that would almost seemingly tear him apart.”
In fact, that’s the truth behind his limp, Leising says; Chesebro was born with a clubfoot but refused to wear braces on his legs as a child.
“He lived in this constant tumble-dryer motif of self-imposed everything: exile, alienation,” Leising says.
That’s when Hanley invited Chesebro into the Lazy Dog. That’s when the cameras began rolling, the spotlight once again on Evil Cheesey.
And that’s when Chesebro decided to reawaken that old dream he had put to sleep 30 years earlier.
He began building a dirt bike again, in secret.
Evil Cheesey was going to ride again.
“That dream was always tingling in the back of his mind. There was this hope,” Leising says. “He had this far-fetched dream of donning the cape and helmet and leaping through the air again.”
An unexpected grand finale
Hanley and Leising knew they had a story for a film, which they titled “Evil Cheesey Rides Again.” They set out to capture his final, climactic stunt.
Instead, they began capturing Evil Cheesey’s final spiral.
While Chesebro’s weathered hands began fusing together the pieces of a new bike, his mind began letting go. His muscles followed. Soon, his daughter says, he could barely walk, shower or feed himself. He began wandering into traffic.
“I couldn’t chain him to the couch,” Mitchell says.
It was his final attempt to free himself from a cycle of self-imposed exile, and this time his own mind, not his choices, was alienating him.
Before he could sit on the bike again, and before the documentary wrapped up, Evil Cheesey was checked into a hospital with dementia. It was too late.
Mitchell had to sell the almost-finished bike.
It hurt to let it go, she says. It was an admission her father would never ride again.
But his energy rides on, she says. Sometimes she can feel his rebellious spirit rise up inside her. That’s when she hits the road for a spontaneous vacation or picks up the paintbrush. Mitchell says she enjoys painting nude women with acrylics.
“It helps me get rid of that creative, adventurous energy,” she says. “I feel like there’s a little bit of a daredevil in me sometimes, too.”
Today, Chesebro sustains on Pepsi and cigarettes. He is voiceless, except for two sentences: “Yeah, man.” “It’s pretty simple.”
He is a blank slate, leaving Hanley and Leising with an almost-finished documentary relying entirely on the community to fill in the holes. It has become not just the story of one wild man, or even a reflection of a time period in Boulder’s history, but a greater message about legacy, Hanley says.
“At one point, all of us will be silent and have no agency, and it will be left to everyone else around us to fill in the blanks,” he says. “This is one of the rare occurrences where someone is alive and watching it take place, but is powerless to correct the story.”
The documentary looks different than planned.
Evil Cheesey’s final show is different, too.
This time, the police can relax. Fans can keep their blouses on. There’s no danger. But there is an audience, and interest is growing, as the filmmakers have seen by the number of videos, photos and stories the community continues to share for the documentary.
No one’s claiming he’s a role model, but even the members of that “New Boulder elite” who wanted to extinguish Evil Cheesey’s early fame now ironically recognize this “bad boy’s” role in Colorado history, Hanley says.
As Hanley and Leising put the final touches on their documentary, the heights that this stunt can soar are not limited by physics.
Evil Cheesey’s grand finale took a different form than he expected. But in a way, it’s much bigger than he could have done alone. It’s immortality, in story.