Local Performer 'Spaces Out' on Sproul

Photo: William Wollbrinck, a local 63-year-old man, uses costumes and art to perform on Sproul Plaza next to Sather Gate. He has preached his personal gospel on sunny days for 36 years.
Karen Ling/Photo
William Wollbrinck, a local 63-year-old man, uses costumes and art to perform on Sproul Plaza next to Sather Gate. He has preached his personal gospel on sunny days for 36 years.

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If astronauts wore celestial suits and walked on Earth instead of the moon, you might mistake William Wollbrinck for one.

Wollbrinck - who goes by Billie - wears a popping, red-painted suit that bags about his spritely frame and is brushed with dozens of white-rimmed black holes that speckle him from his toes to his shoulders, or that - on the days he wears his cardboard-cut, tentacle-like hat - dangle above his thick crop of white hair.

On sunny days for 36 years - and on many cloudy ones, too - Billie has been preaching his personal gospel before Sather Gate. Along with a contraption elaborately constructed of found objects - a large stuffed black widow spider he mounted on a heavy wooden plank, a t-shirt stating "Superman Returns," a floral bedsheet flag with a large black hole painted on it, signs that read "End Polio Now," "Hot Celery" or "Jesus Shaves" - Billie uses his body to take on the character of a messianic figure in a performance art show.

As he speaks, Billie waves his hands and gesticulates with the joy of a little boy who has finally broken past the unintelligible blabber of toddler-hood and realizes he is comprehensible to others.

Billie, now 63, learned only 15 years ago - after submitting himself to a battery of "crackerbox tests" - that he is a schizophrenic.

"I wore a dress, in the sense of schizophrenia," Billie said, describing the exclusion and oppression he has experienced because of his unusual character traits as a schizophrenic and explaining what makes his self-definition so important. By performing, Billie said he means to grab the attention of any student who will allow himself or herself to be moved.

"You are the father, the son, the Holy Ghost and the mother," a passing student said to Billie.

Pushing a black wheelbarrow filled with his disassembled set home, Billie explained that whether or not he is a messiah is irrelevant, and he does not believe he is one.

But if Billie does have a gospel to sing, it's a simple one, and standing, stretching and speaking before Sather Gate, he forms his own choir. He preaches to students that they must stay grounded, place the heart above the head and practice social ambidexterity, emphasizing the importance of getting to know oneself completely before one can know others.

"You won't be able to get out of this place by using your head - you've got to use your heart," he said, pounding his fist on the left side of chest. "Your heartbeat, there's your reality."

Born in Hollywood - and, "conceived at 327 North Western Ave." in his grandmother's attic - Billie said he graduated from high school in 1966 "with no social skills."

Contented to lounge in his attic reading science fiction and fantasy books, Billie was driven to a Marine Recruitment Center by a cousin's husband - an ex-Marine - and enlisted.

Recalling a momentous day in boot camp, Billie described himself and his fellow recruits practicing a drill. They surged across the dirt, mimicking mowing down enemies with guns when suddenly, he said, he began to sob.

Hurting another person "is like smashing your fist into your own hand," Billie said, adding "we're all connected."

Soon after boot camp, Billie deserted the Marines, leaving his home in Los Angeles for San Francisco with no car and no form of identification.

With help from a draft resistor in Berkeley and a band of young British tourists on the Washington state border, Billie escaped to Canada, where he stayed for a year before returning to the United States and turning himself into jail on charges of draft resistance.

Eventually he moved back to Berkeley and said he believes that today, he can say he is "grounded." He attends meditation classes, decorates his apartment, befriends students from Cal Rotaract and performs his art, trying to reach students one at a time.

"What I'm telling you, all this buzzing, is to make you feel, feel, feel," he said.


Noor Al-Samarrai covers Berkeley communities. Contact her at [email protected]

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