The city of Birmingham had little to cheer for in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Years of well-earned bad press and the loss of the steel industry sent the Magic City spiraling into decline, suffering by comparison to the ascendant star of Atlanta, the “City Too Busy to Hate.” But in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Birmingham had something no other city in America could claim: it had a real-life superhero.
By day, Willie Perry was the general manager of J.F. Day & Co., a window-making shop in Lakeview. By night, he was Batman, cruising the highways and byways of Birmingham in a souped-up 1971 Ford Thunderbird he called the Rescue Ship, complete with a sign reading, “Will help anyone in distress.”
For years, Perry helped people of all ages, races and creeds in all parts of Birmingham, only stopping when he tragically died of carbon monoxide poisoning – in a cruel irony, Perry accidentally inhaled fumes from the Rescue Ship itself, left running on a cold night in the garage he called the Batcave – in early 1985. After his death, Perry’s legacy lived on in the Rescue Ship, but the car has suffered from years of mistreatment, neglect and, for an uncertain amount of time, misplacement.
As of the last several months, however, things are finally looking up for the Rescue Ship and the possible revival of a critical part of Birmingham culture. Local filmmaker Lee Shook, working tirelessly with Perry’s widow and daughter, has been leading a campaign to locate and restore the Rescue Ship for years. Now, eight years after Shook first conceived the project, it looks like Birmingham will finally have the opportunity to restore the memory of one of its most extraordinary citizens.
The White Knight of Birmingham
Like all good superheroes, Willie Perry’s adventures as a helmeted crusader had an origin story. Unfortunately, like so many superheroes, it was sparked by a tragedy.
“Years ago, my dad heard about this lady that’d had a flat, and some guys pulled up to help her,” recalled Marquetta Hill, Perry’s daughter. “But instead of helping her, they raped her. So, being the person he is, I think that has a lot to do with why he did what he did. That way, if people were stranded and without assistance, they didn’t have to worry about whether they’d be molested or harmed. He’d have his ID on him and let people know he was just there to help.”
After early attempts to help people in different personas – notably, as the Spaceman who rode a tasseled motor scooter – Perry found his calling as Batman. Donning a maroon-and-white helmet and a burgundy jumpsuit with white trim, the skinny, soft-spoken father and husband became a superheroic Good Samaritan, driving around in a vehicle that was the perfect ice-breaker.
“He’s not some guy that was out there screaming and yelling, a forceful personality,” said Lee Shook. “He used the car to speak for him. He was just a truly kind human being. I think that vehicle gave him a lot of power. That was the whole idea of being the Batman, of embracing a character that’s maybe not you. In this case, there’s Willie Perry, who’s the manager of a window-making shop in Lakeview…and come five o’clock, he puts on his helmet. … It was like having a talisman put around his neck.”
The Rescue Ship itself was a marvelous piece of machinery, a gaudy tribute to Perry’s technical know-how, sense of flair and desire for adventure. The Rescue Ship was painted maroon, gold and white and covered in flashing lights, presenting a funky counterpoint to the Batmobile, the vehicle of choice for the squarest of superheroes. In short, according to Shook, “the car looks like Parliament-Funkadelic on wheels.”
Perry converted the Rescue Ship himself, and he stocked it with a host of wonders that might have seemed like gadgets in the early ‘80s. The Rescue Ship boasted an Atari, a TV, a record player, an electronic address finder, a telephone, a toaster, a Coke dispenser and much more, in addition to a running faucet and spare gas and water to help people with broken-down cars.
In stark contrast to Bruce Wayne’s millions, Perry’s work was supported by an average workingman’s salary from J.F. Day. But when the Rescue Ship traveled the streets and highways of Birmingham helping people on the side of the road, fixing tires and busted parts, all services were free of charge.
Though best remembered for helping people with car trouble, Perry would also ferry people wherever they needed to go, including those who were too tipsy to drive home from the Nick. In one case, Perry’s passenger was a 100-year-old man, whose last wishes included taking a ride in the Rescue Ship. Though Perry was a fixture in Southside and around his home base of West End, he traveled to all parts of Birmingham to help anyone in distress.
Perry would help anyone regardless of their skin color, but it’s worth noting that he was also a reassuring presence to the young and the old alike. For children in the community, Perry – known to most only as Batman – offered free rides, trips to Burger King and an opportunity to spend some time in a tricked-out wonderland of a car. For elderly residents, Perry provided consistent rides to the pharmacy and doctor’s appointments, as well as a friendly face to talk to on the porch.
For his efforts, Perry was featured on the early reality TV show That’s Incredible!, where he was lauded for his record as a Good Samaritan. In 1982, Mayor Richard Arrington declared Aug. 3 Willie Perry Day in recognition of his commitment to community service. Due to the national recognition he received, Perry showed up on Michael Jackson’s radar, and the King of Pop took a spin in the Rescue Ship during a stop in Birmingham while on tour.
As busy as he was with his two careers, Perry never lost sight of his family, according to his daughter. When asked what it was like growing up with a superhero for a father, Hill replied, “Oh, he was just Dad to me. I remember growing up that he always…helped others. His motto was, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ And he mimicked that even in our household. I guess that I can say that my dad taught me how to be a lady – he just showed me how a real man’s supposed to treat a woman. My mother didn’t need for anything; he spoiled her. He was just a great dad. I loved him so much – he was my best friend. I could share anything with him, and I didn’t have to worry about being scared.”
Perry’s unanimously glowing reputation from friends, family and strangers alike only heightens the tragedy of his death. Only days after helping four University of Tennessee students purchase rooms at a hotel when they were stranded in Birmingham during a snowfall, Perry died at the age of 44, according to BhamWiki.
“He was the backbone of the company,” said Tom Patton, sales manager of J.F. Day, in a Birmingham News report following Perry’s death. “We’re all just in shock – he spends his life helping people and then he turns up dead, all alone.” A contemporaneous report from The Birmingham Post-Herald quotes Mayor Arrington calling Perry “a special blessing to the city of Birmingham. He was one of the few people who disregarded himself completely in the name of others.”
“I didn’t realize how important my dad was in the city of Birmingham until he passed,” Hill said. “That’s when people from all over – white, black, anyone – came and shared with us stories of what my dad did. We weren’t rich, we were just average, but he shared, and because he shared, God blessed him. God blesses you so that you can be a blessing. … That’s why I can’t allow his legacy to go unnoticed.”
Rescuing the Rescue Ship
After Perry’s passing in 1985, the City of Birmingham purchased the Rescue Ship for $15,000 from the Perry family. Originally housed at the Southern Museum of Flight, the car was eventually moved out to the Alabama State Fairgrounds, which is where Lee Shook found it after deciding he wanted to make a documentary about Perry’s life and legacy.
Growing up in Mountain Brook, Shook saw Perry in parades and during his rounds on the interstate, helping people on the side of the road. After going to New York for film school, Shook returned with the ambition to document Perry’s life’s work, and he planned to use the Rescue Ship to stand in for the late Perry in the film.
Finally seeing the car, however, was an unpleasant surprise. “When I found it, the car wouldn’t run at all,” Shook recalled. “Nobody had tried to take it out for a spin to keep the engine fresh. The tires were flat. The door [to the display case holding the car] was wide open, and there was graffiti on the car. And it was sad to me to see this amazing, singular piece of machinery, and such a unique part of Birmingham’s cultural history, and I thought, ‘Something needs to be done about this.’”
Shook’s subsequent letter-writing campaign, working in tandem with Hill, convinced the city to relocate the car from the Fairgrounds. Since 2009, the Rescue Ship has been sitting under a tarp in a storage garage, and it hasn’t been maintained for years.
With more time and money to devote to the project, Shook began the documentary process again within the last year. With 2014 marking the 75th anniversary of the debut of Batman in Detective Comics #27, Shook mustered his resources to make the documentary – tentatively titled Smiles Per Gallon – timely. The project currently involves several notable contributors, with 2threefive, who make the Made in the Magic City series, serving as the production crew, Yellowhammer Creative handling design and marketing, and Nashville-based duo Steelism composing a new take on the Batman theme song.
With a release date originally planned for Aug. 3 of this year – Willie Perry Day – Shook’s plans stalled when the city had difficulty tracking down the Rescue Ship. The recent involvement of Councilor Sheila Tyson, however, has both the documentary and the Rescue Ship itself back on the right track.
Tyson, whose office located the Rescue Ship in a garage near the airport in the last week, remembers Perry fondly from her own childhood in West End. “He visited the elderly, the sick, and for Christmas, he was our Santa Claus, because he was a person who’d always give out a lot of toys. It was nothing for him to come out during the holidays. … He knew all the needy people, because he had access to the community. When we’d see him coming the week of Christmas, everyone knew exactly who he was and what he did, and we’d run and chase him and hang out outside the car, and he would honk his horn, and everybody would call at him, saying ‘Batman! Batman!’ Until he died, I didn’t know his name.”
According to Tyson, clear signs of progress are evident even at this preliminary stage. “We know where the car’s at. We’re trying to get it donated to a museum…and we’re trying to find someone who can actually finance it and fix it up for us. … We’re looking for a way to store it where it won’t cost the citizens or the city any money, and we’re looking for a means of having a fundraiser where we can actually get the car and fix it and put it somewhere where people can view it.” Tyson also noted that the city is trying to create a nonprofit for fundraising on repairs.
The most likely location for both the Rescue Ship’s maintenance and full-time residence is Old Car Heaven. “We are completely looking forward to getting it,” said Tamara Mahaffey, event coordinator at the car museum. “We’ve agreed to keep it, house it, to do what we can to assist in the repairs and even in the fundraising effort to make it back to what it used to be.
“We would like to house it permanently,” Mahaffey added, but noted that “that’s something that will be figured out once it’s repaired.”
In addition to raising funds to fix, maintain and house the Rescue Ship, Tyson also suggested the possibility of a scholarship fund centered in Marquetta Hill’s Willie Perry Foundation.
“My dad was a scientist, that’s what I consider him as,” Hill said. “He could take anything and build it and put it together and make it work functionally. … My goal is to go through schools and present a scholarship…to get kids back to doing those kinds of things, as well as to let them know about my father and about his legacy. He loved helping everybody.”
Beyond scholarships, Hill said, “We want to do other things – not just schools, but really targeting into the community to where we can help the elderly, we can help homeless women and men, just helping out in the community so that his legacy won’t go in vain.” In a true compliment to the equanimity of Perry’s work as Batman, there’s no shortage of groups for whom a dedicated Willie Perry scholarship would be appropriate.
Shook, who’s been trying to engineer a resolution like this since 2008, can see a bright future on the horizon. “We want to, by Aug. 3 of next year, have Willie Perry Day be a day of community service again. My pipe dream would be to have the car refurbished, we’d have the event somewhere downtown like Railroad Park, we’d have the car out there with the lights running and the record player going, and we’d be looking forward to releasing the film at Sidewalk and reminding people to make every day a Willie Perry Day.”
The White Knight returns
Throughout their interviews, each person quoted in this story returned again and again to the question of Perry’s legacy, which has long seemed in danger of languishing in obscurity like the Rescue Ship. In a town known as much for strife as for progress, they’ve found something pure and humane in the example set by Perry.
When asked to elaborate on what she thought her father’s most lasting legacy was, Hill responded, “Showing more love and caring for one another. … If you can help change a flat tire, why not? You’ve got so many single mothers around here, and you’ve got people who know they’re single mothers, and they won’t even take the trash out for them. The people in our neighborhood didn’t have to worry about anything, because when my dad walked outside and saw snow on the ground, he’d rake up other people’s snow, too, so that they could walk. … Just little things like that. That’s what started the process of him helping people. There was nothing too small that he wouldn’t do for people – his heart was just that big.”
“All eyes are looking at Birmingham right now, waiting to see what we’re going to do, especially with our history of racial strife and other negative things that people associate with Birmingham and all the things that are changing here,” Shook said. “Now is the time to tell this story. This is a guy, just after the era of the Civil Rights Movement, who went to every kind of neighborhood and community – black, white, rich, poor – and he saw no difference between them. I’m not trying to say he was a civil rights leader, but maybe in some ways he was; he proved that no matter your skin tone, no matter your religious beliefs, you could be a bridge between people.”
Birmingham can boast a few heroes, but Willie Perry’s singular legacy is one that lives on in an uncommon devotion to the common good. Whether it’s by donating your time to help out your community or by donating your money to a worthy nonprofit, the sense that anyone can be a Willie Perry has driven Shook to rescue the Rescue Ship.
“I think it’s an incredible story for Birmingham about the dedication of some of our citizens to put the well-being of others before themselves, in some ways, and hopefully inspire other people to take up Willie’s mantle on their own,” Shook said. “Everyone can be a superhero. You don’t need a cape, you don’t need a Batmobile. You can just be out in the community helping others, whether it’s your family, whether it’s your elderly neighbor, whether it’s cleaning up a park of trash – there’s all sorts of ways to be a hero to someone. And I’m trying to find a way to tell people that, look, everybody has this ability. Everyone can be a Willie Perry…if you just take the initiative.”
For more information about Willie Perry and future fundraising efforts, visit the Rescue the Rescue Ship Facebook page.