April 30, 2014 in City

Shawn Vestal: Frivolity lurks inside Doomsday Hill’s menacing vulture

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tyler Tjomsland photoBuy this photo

Bill Robinson as the Bloomsday vulture: With the masses atop Doomsday Hill in 2012, top, and at his home Thursday in Spokane.
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Bill Robinson is training for his 27th Bloomsday.

Doing a little running on the treadmill. Working on his core. Fixing the crack in his beak …

Robinson will spend this Bloomsday like the 26 before it: perched at the top of Doomsday Hill, around the fifth mile, looming over the gasping hordes as a giant, cartoonish approximation of Cathartes aura – the turkey vulture.

“I’m just another street lunatic,” Robinson says. “Dressed up a little more elaborately.”

The Doomsday Hill vulture is among the most venerable and visible of Bloomsday traditions. Groups use him as a place to meet if they become separated. Some avid young athletes stop at the vulture and do push-ups before running on. And more recently, in the age of the selfie, he poses for photo after photo after photo.

“Some people wonder what it stands for,” Robinson says. “I say it stands for mirth and merriment. It’s simply there to put a smile on the faces of those who might enjoy it.”

Robinson, 61, is a lifelong Spokane resident and the president of Robinson Research, a market research firm. The vulture was born not in a fit of Bloomsday enthusiasm, but as a Halloween costume. Robinson does not take Halloween lightly, and has always been someone who puts a lot of effort into his costume.

“Never bought one. Always made one,” he said.

He’s also always been interested in making costumes. Over the years, he’s created large, costume versions of a black widow, a steak, a mandrill, an “extremely uncomfortable” praying mantis and a sperm cell for a TV ad. He built the vulture over the course of a month in 1986 and wore it to a Halloween party where, naturally, he won the costume contest.

But the vulture resisted being put away.

“A costume like this is kind of like a wedding dress,” Robinson said. “You have a lot of time and a lot of money in it. … I just wanted to wear it again.”

He showed up for his first Bloomsday the following spring. And then the spring after that. And the spring after that …

“I love it. It’s wonderful,” Robinson said. “It’s fun to be so appreciated by so many people. Nobody appreciates a market researcher-statistician.”

Even if you’ve seen the vulture in action, you might be surprised at what an enormous, elaborate production it is. The bird stands 10 feet tall with a wingspan of 16 feet. Its body is made primarily of layers of foam rubber covered with black rip-stop nylon feathers. The feet and beak are made of sculpted foam rubber; the head and neck are a “mixed-media” convergence of foam rubber, papier-mâché and epoxy. The bird’s long, menacing nose is bright red and black, with a yellow beak; the feet are shaped to perfectly accommodate a pair of Adidas Stan Smith tennis shoes – “an excellent concrete-pounding shoe.”

The suit weighs around 80 pounds. By the end of the race, Robinson is as bushed as the runners.

“Disassembled, it completely fills a full-size Ford E-150 van,” he said. “I need at least two skilled helpers to get in and out of the thing.”

The bird’s eyes – which are lit from within – are made from truck taillights, though Robinson plans to replace them with LED lights this year. Inside the suit are two fans to keep Robinson cool and inflate the wings.

Most people love to greet and photograph the vulture, but he’s also the target of some monkey business – kids trying to punch him or tip him over. He relies on his wife, Sharon Robinson, to help divert those problems. A longtime administrator for Spokane Public Schools who is now an assistant principal at Shadle Park High School, she’s got a sharp eye for impending mischief.

“She’s really good at spotting an inappropriate or foolish idea, absorbing the negative energy and deflecting some inappropriate act upon the vulture,” he said.

Robinson’s various adventures have included the time the electrical switch for the eye lights overheated and caught fire.

“The thing started filling up with smoke,” he said. “My handlers were excited, and I was quite excited, but we managed to stay in.”

Robinson has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and as the news of his illness leaked out, some of the vulture’s friends and supporters became concerned that he might be disappearing from the route. Robinson – who has been through treatment and says he is doing “very well” – found the premature reports of the vulture’s demise amusing. He’s not ready to ground the bird just yet.

“I hope to be dead before I quit doing it,” he said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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