John Hanson removes the ring from the finger of the Blackbird, which was part of its Christmas shopping season garb. Jim Craven 2/6/2008 - Jim Craven

'I tried to make him a rabbit'

John Hanson's masterpiece isn't "high art" in the connoisseur's sense.

Climbing 29 feet to outfit Medford's Black Bird Shopping Center statue, however, likely qualifies Hanson as the Rogue Valley's most elevated costume designer.

Dressing the west Medford emporium's namesake mascot is just one responsibility in a long list that Hanson holds as the store's carpenter and maintenance man.

But among all the tasks Hanson has performed over the past 31 years with Black Bird, playing costumer to the iconic fiberglass crow allows the former commercial artist some creative license.

"I never thought I'd wake up and be the guy dressing him," Hanson said. "It's a lot of fun. I really wish I could do it for a living."

Hanson, 56, moved in 1977 from the San Diego area to the Rogue Valley with designs on painting murals and commercial signs. He opened up a small sign shop for about six months but realized his carpentry skills were much more marketable. Hanson wandered into Black Bird on May 17, 1977, after his brother spied its "help wanted" sign. Since that day, the Wimer resident said, he's "pretty much built everything inside the store."

Looking for a new holiday promotion, Glenn Hobbs, son of Black Bird founder Lee Hobbs, approached Hanson about transforming the store's grinning raven into the "jolly old elf." Thirty years later, Santa Claus remains the bird's most popular incarnation. To children living in west Medford, Hanson said, Christmas must be coming when he decks out the black bird.

"Everyone who's ever known me honks," Hanson said of passing motorists.

More costumes followed the original, stitched of 20-ounce vinyl on massive sewing machines in the store's now-defunct upholstery shop. Intimately familiar with the bird's measurements, Hanson learned to construct his clothing in halves, fastened down the sides with about 50 feet of 2-inch Velcro. Hats and Santa's beard are secured with screws. The store's shelves provide whatever Hanson needs to manufacture props, such as Santa's candy cane assembled from a length of 10-inch-diameter stovepipe painted white and wrapped in red duct tape.

"Ideally, they'd like me to come up with a costume every couple of months for the statue," Hanson said.

The black bird already has a seasonally diverse wardrobe. He's been a witch for Halloween, donned a green derby for St. Patrick's Day, clutched Denver and San Francisco pennants for Super Bowl XXIV and — without fail — suits up every April in running shorts and a tank top in honor of Medford's annual Pear Blossom Run.

To celebrate Black Bird's status as an Ace Hardware store, the statue gained a jaunty, red vest emblazoned with the Ace logo. For his 21st birthday in 1986, the bird sported a party hat and, for a few minutes, even held an oversized plastic beer can — removed before his wholesome reputation could be sullied.

"We turned the whole front into a carnival," Hanson said.

Good intentions aside, not all of Hanson's creations have been well-received.

"We've had some failures. I tried to make him a rabbit one year," Hanson said, commenting that instead of conjuring the Easter bunny, the bird looked more like the Flying Nun.

The store also weathered a bit of controversy over a six-shooter Hanson placed in the bird's hand to promote a junior rodeo event at the Jackson County Expo. Looking back, Hanson said he should have attached a flag printed with the word "bang" to the end of the gun barrel. The costume's cowboy hat, however, was a welcome addition to the black bird's collection of headgear.

"The hats are hard to do," Hanson said.

That difficulty is compounded by the hulking crow's flat, almost nonexistent head. Hanson usually resorts to perching hats atop the character's cartoonish eyeballs.

"His brain is rather small," Hanson said.

Yet Hanson promised a local boy that he'd find some way this year to crown the statue with a sombrero. He and current Black Bird owner Bill Quitt also have started soliciting ideas from customers for new costumes.

"You don't see that at Wal-Mart," Quitt said.

When Hanson isn't devising the black bird's next wardrobe change, he maintains the bird's unruffled appearance with patching and paint jobs about once a year. Work is mostly accomplished from the store's hydraulic safety cage, but Hanson must rent a lift truck to reach the statue's pinnacle. The acrobatics are confined to colder days or the early-morning hours, on account of the vast colony of hornets that inhabit the hollow sculpture.

Insect stings are just one drawback to dressing the black bird. Being the store's maintenance man becomes a heavy burden every time one of the bird's claws is accidentally or willfully mangled. Just about every one of the hollow toes has been replaced with a concrete appendage, Hanson said, in the years that vandals have left their mark or unwieldy vehicles have backed into the protuberances.

"And you'd think they'd see 'em," Hanson said. "They're bright yellow — safety yellow."

Quitt acknowledges that people either love or hate his store's towering monument. But the black bird looks poised to stand tall — costumes and all — for another 30 years.

"If that thing was gone, we'd just be another big-box store," Hanson said.

"It so is Americana."

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