Batman of Birmingham: The Curious Story Of Willie J. Perry

Sheila Tyson still remembers riding home with Batman.

She was a little girl then, each arm loaded with a cluster of bulging grocery bags and each foot keeping time with those of her mother and siblings as they made their customary several-mile trek home from the store on foot. But on many lucky occasions, he would pull up alongside the family in a car effervescent with strobe lights, and he would ask through an enormous, toothy grin if they all wanted to pile inside.

“Mom had to buy groceries for seven children,” Tyson, now a city councilor for Birmingham, Alabama, said. “She didn’t have a car, and we didn’t have much access to public transportation. We didn’t have much at all. But we had Batman.”

By day, he was Willie J. Perry, a Birmingham native and resident of the city’s South Titusville neighborhood and shop manager at Lakeview district window distributor J.F. Day & Company. But in the mornings and nights before and after work, he was the Batman of Birmingham, cruising the city’s streets in a souped-up 1971 Ford Thunderbird he dubbed the Rescue Ship, carrying older folks to doctor’s appointments, repairing the engines and replacing the flat tires of stranded motorists, and rolling up at kids’ birthday parties to deliver presents and trips in the Ship.

He refused all offers of payment or reimbursement for his assistance, which he provided until literally the day of his death in 1985.

“We were living in a poor, black community, and we all knew about the Batman shows on the television, but we were convinced that Willie Perry was the real Batman,” Tyson said. “He was Batman for us, and you couldn’t tell us anything else.”

Tyson was speaking to a more than 100-person crowd assembled on August 3, 2015, at Birmingham’s Old Car Heaven to celebrate Willie Perry Day, a title assigned to the date by mayor Richard Arrington in 1982 to honor Perry’s contributions to the city.

But Willie Perry Day 2015 wasn’t just any old Willie Perry Day. The Rescue Ship, recovered from a city storage unit near Birmingham International Airport after being warehoused for years, anchored the event, along with the presentation to Perry’s family of a new resolution passed by the Alabama state legislature recognizing Perry’s legacy.

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Family members, old friends, and new admirers flocked to the vehicle, snapping pictures together and swapping long-ago tales of either salvation at Perry’s hands or adventures in the passenger seat. Many folks had not seen the car since they were children, and some were looking at it for the first time.

When it came to Batmobile embellishment, Willie Perry had more of a flair for flamboyance than Bruce Wayne did. The vehicle, equal parts burgundy, white, and gold, is charming in its devotion to garish idiosyncrasy.

Stickers bearing inscriptions like “Sexy Tiffany: International Lover” and “Angela: A Mean Sex Queen” blanket the Rescue Ship’s front and rear quarter panels, displayed in honor of Perry’s nieces and friends. Bat-shaped stickers, reminiscent of the logo for the campy 1960s Batman television series, announce the Rescue Ship’s name from each door.

A spoiler juts from the trunk, and cylindrical fluorescent light fixtures stacked into tailfins run the length of the car’s rear half. Two strobe lights sit lifeless along the top edge of the windshield. Look down through the cutaway ceiling, and you’ll see a dashboard covered in orange shag carpet, as well as a toaster oven, record player, Atari 2600 game console, and PA system. A clear plastic shield at the front of the hood bears Perry’s motto: “Will Help Anyone in Distress.” When he was on duty, Perry donned a white jumpsuit with brown trim and a white motorcycle helmet with a red bat logo on each side.

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“You can’t get the full picture with it just sitting here like this. Back then, this thing was a major attraction on wheels. It had all these lights going, and loud music playing, and you could talk on the PA system to people on the sidewalk while he drove by,” Denard Jones, a nephew Perry nicknamed “Bubba,” said as he stood examining the car in which his uncle had taken him for rides when he was four years old.

According to Lee Shook, a Birmingham-native radio DJ and filmmaker who has been working throughout the past eight years on a documentary about Perry and was instrumental in locating the car and organizing the event, plans are already in motion to restore the Rescue Ship to its original, operable condition.

“There are really two potential versions of where we would like to take this restoration process,” Shook said in a phone conversation one week after the event. “There’s the pipe dream version, in the best of all possible worlds, where we would get the car fixed back to its original condition and get it running again. I want it to be going down the street turning heads again, like it did when I was a kid.

“I would love to have the documentary debut at the [annual Sidewalk Film Festival] next year with the Rescue Ship parked outside the Alabama Theatre with all the lights going and the toaster toasting, with the bat signal going up in the air to let everybody in Birmingham know that it’s there. But if we can’t do that, we at the very least want to get it running so that it can be taken to events and parades around town.”

Shook said the restoration effort will be funded primarily through private donations to a Rescue the Rescue Ship fund accessible online.

“He was a genius, and he did great all through high school. He knew he could do anything he wanted, but he decided to put all of his efforts towards helping other people instead of just advancing his own career,” Stickney said.

To hear his friends and family tell it, Perry lived to improve the lives of the people around him, with or without the Rescue Ship. In fact, according to Shook, before he was Batman, Perry adopted a Spaceman persona, cruising around on a customized motorcycle looking for ways he could lend a hand.

Judy Stickney, Perry’s niece, recalls Perry picking her up to take her to work at the Red Cross every morning and swinging by every evening to carry her back home. She was one of several single, working mothers along a circuit he traveled each day, transporting them to and from their jobs before spending the day at his own.

“He was a genius, and he did great all through high school. He knew he could do anything he wanted, but he decided to put all of his efforts towards helping other people instead of just advancing his own career,” Stickney said.

Stickney stood reminiscing with her cousin Debbie Hill, who added, “He was a quiet man, and he was a powerful man.” Hill is enshrined on the Rescue Ship with a sticker reading, “Debbie: Fine.”

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Debbie “Fine” Hill.

“Whenever I needed a ride anywhere, I knew I could call him,” Joyce Darby, Perry’s niece, said. “He’d answer that phone in his car and say, ‘Alright, I’ll be there in ten minutes.’ And if he said he was coming to get you, he was coming.”

Perry regularly spent late Friday and Saturday nights carrying home people who were too intoxicated to drive themselves back from the restaurant or bar safely, then he would get up early the next morning to drive across town to deliver rides and presents at children’s birthday parties.

“We have some archival footage of him at the parties, and you can just see the pure joy, the awe, in these children’s eyes,” Shook said. “That really brought it all back to how he made me feel when I saw him as a kid.”

One time, he paid for the hotel room of four tourists who were stranded overnight in Birmingham during a snowstorm. On another occasion, he helped thwart an attempted pharmacy robbery. The tales of Perry’s good deeds are innumerable.

“He would have been helping people with or without that car. That’s just what he did anyway. His entire life, he was always looking for ways he could help someone out,” Nicole Blount, Perry’s niece, said.

“There was still a lot of anger and resentment in both the black and white communities, and he was this real person that did everything he could to help you, white or black, rich or poor.”

But the Batman alter ego and the Rescue Ship did play a substantial role in generating interest for and recognition of Perry’s actions, making him a sort of universal symbol of selfless altruism in a Southern city less than 20 years removed from the formal end of the Civil Rights Movement.

ABC featured Perry in a 1982 episode of the network’s That’s Incredible! television program. He and the Rescue Ship headed Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s funeral procession in 1983, and Michael Jackson tracked Perry down to ask for a ride in the car when the Jacksons were in town rehearsing for their 1984 Victory tour. According to Shook, comedian Redd Foxx approached Perry’s family about purchasing the vehicle following Perry’s death in 1985.

WatchThat’s Incredible! segment on Willie Perry from 1982.

“We’re talking about barely post-Civil Rights Movement Birmingham. Segregation was still very much an awful reality,” Shook said. “There was still a lot of anger and resentment in both the black and white communities, and he was this real person that did everything he could to help you, white or black, rich or poor.”

Birmingham, along with many other cities across the state, played a critical role in the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr., penned his eminent “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on the margins of a smuggled-in newspaper while serving an eight-day sentence there in April of 1963.

In June of the same year, Alabama Governor George Wallace made his notorious Stand in the Schoolhouse Door in an attempt to bar two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. For most of the years Perry was cruising Birmingham in the Rescue Ship, Wallace was running the state.

Wallace served two more terms as Alabama governor between 1971 and 1979 and one final term between 1983 and 1987, campaigning in 1970 with slogans like “Do you want the black bloc electing your governor?” and “Wake Up Alabama! Blacks vow to take over Alabama.” Less than 30 years after Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to give up her spot on a Montgomery bus, Willie Perry was tooling around Birmingham sharing his passenger seats with anyone who needed them.

“He loved everybody, no matter what your skin color was. He had an impact on everyone he met,” Darby said. “He shared his life with everybody.”

If the size and diversity of the crowd at Old Car Heaven on the night of August 3, 2015, is any indication, Perry’s legacy has similarly transcended demarcations of race, age, or socioeconomic status.

“The vehicle that he used to do so much good ultimately took his life,” Shook said. “It’s this absolutely heartbreaking chapter of the story.”

Like Bruce Wayne’s, Willie Perry’s story is one ultimately scarred by tragedy. January of 1985 was a period of uncommonly extreme cold and snowfall for the Birmingham area. The night of January 24, after braving the elements to check on Mr. Day’s mother-in-law, Perry pulled the Rescue Ship into a garage at J.F. Day & Company to work on the car.

Nobody knows for sure whether Perry closed the garage door to insulate his workspace against the invading cold or if the door closed unintentionally, but accidental carbon monoxide poisoning from the Rescue Machine’s running engine ended Perry’s life that night. He was 44 years old. Perry was later found on all fours at the garage door, as if he had been trying to lift the door to get out. According to Darby, the snowfall at the time had been so substantial that his funeral services were delayed a week until the roads had been adequately cleared for people in the city to travel safely.

“The vehicle that he used to do so much good ultimately took his life,” Shook said. “It’s this absolutely heartbreaking chapter of the story.”

A chapter, yes, but not once did any of Perry’s friends or family suggest it was the end of the story.

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Shook intends for the documentary, tentatively titled Smiles Per Gallon, to look to the future as much as the past. Much of the film’s focus will be directed toward tracking the upcoming Rescue Machine restoration process in addition to tracing the history of Perry’s time as Birmingham’s Batman.

“Since Willie is no longer alive and can no longer speak for himself, we want to have his car sort of stand in for him in this story, and we want to tell the story of the car getting restored, this story of reviving his spirit with the car, as well as through the memories of all of these people whose lives he impacted,” Shook said.

Members of Perry’s family, spearheaded by the efforts of his daughter Marquetta Hill, are creating the Willie Perry Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to providing used cars for single parents in need of transportation for work or school. Shook envisions future Willie Perry Days as communal periods of citywide service efforts.

“He truly believed that he could make the world a better place just by making the effort each day to help people. That’s a very powerful message, and it seems like it’s one you don’t see very often now,” Shook said. “And that’s what we all can learn from Willie Perry. You don’t have to have a Batmobile. You don’t have to dress up in the suit. Just do something truly good and kind, something that will help somebody for no other reason than wanting to help. Make every day a Willie Perry Day.”

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About the Author
Jordan is a graduate student in geography and natural resources conservation at the University of Alabama, where he earned his undergraduate degree in accounting in 2015 and operates a weekly Americana radio broadcast for the school's student-run station.

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