Acworth native and Atlanta resident Jesse James Dupree has the ponytail, the oddly menacing soul patch and tattoos to punctuate his rocker image.
But underneath the tough exterior is a businessman – and a rather good one at that.
He is the brains behind Atlanta-based TruTV’s latest offering “Full Throttle Saloon,” debuting tonight at 10 p.m.
The show tracks a saloon that is open less than two weeks a year in Sturgis, South Dakota, during the largest motorcycle rally in the U.S. This reality show hones in on Full Throttle Saloon and its owner Mike Ballard, who works every angle to ensure he can turn a profit.
“He’s like Andy Griffith,” said Dupree, who is also lead singer of metal band Jackyl. (I met him at WAGA-TV after his “Good Day Atlanta” appearance today.) “He’s got his Don Knotts and Barney Fife. He’s got Goat Boy and Chicken Leg and Fajita Mike and all these characters around him.”
The first episode, which I screened, focuses on the prep work to open the saloon during the Sturgis Bike Rally this past August. Attendance was down the year before and Ballard is worried the economy might throttle them again.
He grapples with employees trying to steal from him (this is a heavily cash business), a motorcycle stunt guy who has a tendency to land in jail and maintaining some level of decorum per local ordinance. (There’s a funny scene in which scantily clad female employees are told what’s acceptable to wear and what’s not.)
Ballard, who has been running the saloon for a decade, comes across as calm on the surface but is constantly fretting about whether he can make enough money to survive another year.
“You have to respect the fact he has $2 million in liabilities when he opens each year,” said Dupree, who helps Ballard out every year with logistics and marketing, among other things. “He has $300,000 in beer and food. He has 100-plus employees. He has to hit $2 million in revenues just to break even.”
One of the most notable moments is a major hail storm during the rally. “The hail was as big as tangerines,” Dupree said. “They punched holes in the roofs of cars. We normally have one bad day a year. This year, we had three.”
Sturgis is within an hour’s drive of the Crazy Horse monument, Mount Rushmore and the Badlands, great locales to ride motorcycles. Full Throttle Saloon is a destination point during the rally and is open from 5:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. each day, with 30,000-plus people visiting each day.
There are two entertainment stages, a tattoo parlor, a burn-out pit, a zip line, a wrestling ring, bars, eateries and 200 cabins for rent. Entry is free.
The event itself is a celebration of the free-spirited biking culture.
“It’s a family gathering,” Dupree said, “a fraternity of people who love riding.”
The show attempts to capture that energy, using 40 crew members with cameras running 24 hours a day. Ballard is lucky to get two hours of sleep a night and we will see his irritable side in future episodes. One night, he gets seriously peeved, Dupree said, when employees party it up on the campgrounds in golf carts during the wee hours.
After Dupree got a taste of success as a TV producer via MTV’s “Two a Days,” he pitched “Full Throttle Saloon” to TV network honchos to no avail. Execs in New York City boardrooms had a hard time envisioning what the saloon meant until he shot video of the 2008 event. That helped him sell it to TruTV (after consideration from Spike TV and CMT as well.)
The show will likely attract a younger male crowd, TruTV’s target demographic. And he promises none of the shenanigans you might see on “The Hills” or “The Real Housewives” franchise, which feel semi-staged. “We just turn on the cameras and let it roll,” he said. There will be six one-hour episodes.
Dupree, a married man with three kids, is also a busy man outside of that event. He plays 40 dates a year with his band and is working on producing other TV shows and developing musical artists.
Though Dupree’s company Mighty Loud is based in Kennesaw, he spends plenty of time in Los Angeles. “During the summer months, from May until a week ago, I was pretty much gone,” he said. “I was home only a couple of days at a time.”
ON TV TONIGHT
“Full Throttle Saloon,” TruTV, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.